Birmingham – The City Beautiful

Vestavia will be featured in Birmingham Historical Society’s newest book Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of George Ward. A publication celebration will be held on November 1 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.  The event is open to the public. The book will be available from Birmingham Historical Society, One Sloss Quarters, Birmingham, AL 35222 for $30 postpaid (cash or check) or from Amazon.

Celebrating Birmingham: The City Beautiful 
and George B. Ward, its Champion

The newest volume from the Birmingham Historical Society bears the apt title Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward. And in its 112 pages, laced with photos of both George B. Ward (1867-1940) and the growing city he so adored, the story of early Birmingham unfolds like a novel. From George arriving in 1871 in yet-to-be-named Birmingham at the age of 4 to his ascent to city leader, the book draws the reader page to page, improvement by improvement—especially detailing Ward’s determination to beautify the city that benefited greatly from his measures. 

Ward—who during his time served as Alderman, Mayor, City Commission President—unwittingly assisted the writing of this volume by keeping news clippings and correspondence in 24 bursting-to-seams scrapbooks now housed in the Birmingham Public Library’s Department of Archives and Manuscripts. Newspaper accounts beyond his personal collection reveal the spirit of this man who shrewdly chose to first recruit women and children to the beautification notion. 

Then-Mayor Ward’s little pamphlet of June 1908 (reproduced on the book’s cover and in its title) made beautification simple with suggestions for “block improvement societies” such as: “Whitewash everything you can’t paint,” “Wherever the ground shows bare, plant something green in it,” and “Report anybody who militates or ties a horse to a tree. You get half the fine on conviction.” “For permanent screens [to block unsightly views], use hardy shrubs, or the quickly growing vines.” Most of all Ward entreated the ladies to “call all you meet to the idea of a ‘ City Beautiful.’”

As the story continues, triumphant and true, the Birmingham Beautiful initiative, fueled by Mayor Ward’s energy, worked. Newspapers of the era reported planting tips from local florists (the period’s horticultural experts) while city schools engaged children in thinking, writing, and talking about the program’s potential. A headquarters office in City Hall, bombarded with inquiries from other cities, worked to spread the beautification message. 

What came from the years of Birmingham’s Beautiful boom were parks we enjoy today: Ward, Phelan, East Lake, the pocket parks along Highland Avenue, Lane (which now houses Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Birmingham Zoo), and Linn, the latter surrounded by public buildings, forming a city center, a prime City Beautiful era project. 

Ward’s best-known park may be Vestavia, his country estate on Shades Mountain that he ran like a public botanical garden, opening the residence in the reconstructed Roman temple and the extensive gardens to visitors—both whites and blacks—who arrived in large and small groups and in thousands during annual festivals. Today’s Ward’ temple of Sybil in its park setting on U.S. 31 commands the northern entrance to the city of Vestavia Hills, incorporated in 1950. 

George Ward’s vision for the City Beautiful movement, inspired by the great “White City” created for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, was to create “a living urban environment . . . healthy and happy to live in.” He championed the movement long after leaving office in 1917, executing his learning from nationally prominent landscape designer Warren H. Manning (who had himself worked on the World’s Fair project). Ward never strayed far from his visions or opinions, even as he spent 40 years as an investment banker, founding the firm of Ward, Sterne & Company (later Sterne, Agee & Leach and today part of 1919 Investment Counsel, Inc. and Stifel Financial Corp.) specializing in Alabama public and corporate finance and securities. The Sterne Agee Charitable Foundation, in fact, commissioned this book to honor its founder and his achievements. 

Indeed, the name George B. Ward should live on. George H. Eustis, a contemporary who served as Birmingham treasurer, described Ward as “competent, untiring, energetic, and wedded to his work. He never dodged responsibilities or sidetracked an issue. He cleaned this town up to the queen’s taste…[getting] the ladies of the city interested in a ‘city beautiful’ movement.” 

Researched and written by the Birmingham Historical Society, Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward will be available November 1 from Birmingham Historical Society, One Sloss Quarters, Birmingham, AL 35222 for $30 postpaid, from Amazon, and from Shoppe at 3815 Clairmont Avenue South. One copy of the book will be provided gratis to 2021 Society members

Archival document originally published in 1908 by George Ward, Mayor, and reprinted in 2021 by The Birmingham Historical Society with rules for block improvements for ”the public good, health, and happiness”!

CBS 42 News Brings Attention to Brock’s Gap Concerns

View CBS video report by selecting image above

An interstate exchange is causing concern to Birmingham Historical Society members because of its impact upon the historic Brock’s Gap. A major mining area and a landmark of Birmingham’s founding, the nineteenth century site is currently a unique educational resource as well as a beautiful green space and nature trail. The hope is that interstate developers will consider not only traffic concerns but also the historic value of this site in their planning. For more information, please refer to this post.

Autumn Bracey with CBS News covers the story, interviewing Hoover Councilman, John Lyda, and Birmingham Historical Society Director, Marjorie White.

Field of Dreams

Build it and they will come! Red Mountain Park is now a 1500 acre park with 15 miles of trails. But back then it was a former mining complex, and a ‘safe place’ that was healing and close to nature for Ishkooda resident Erwin Batain.

Son of a miner, Batain cleared a path from his backyard to one of the 15 mines that originally operated on the property. Overwhelmed with the beauty of the area, he brought his sister, Evanne Gibson, president of Birmingham’s West End Community, and Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson, to see it in the 1990’s along with many friends and family members who he thought would benefit from the meditative and healing power of nature. His enthusiasm for the area earned him the title, “The Prophet of Red Mountain”.

By 2012, it was officially established as one of the largest urban parks in the United States, with access to Birmingham west end communities of not only Iskooda but also Tarpley City, West Goldwire, Garden Highlands, and Mason City.

Jefferson County Commisioner Sheila Tyson dubbed it Birmingham’s west end ‘jewel’. And another of its early advocates was Birmingham Historical Society Trustee and Lawson State Community College history instructor, Gregory Wilson. Due to its rich geological, industrial, and archeological history, Wilson immediately recognized the value of using Red Mountain Park as an immense educational tool.

“[At RMP], I saw the geology, I saw the archaeology, I saw Native American history,” added Wilson, who has used the space to teach his own students by having them tour the space and ask questions of an archaeologist.

“Educators tend not to see [the potential] because it’s … a diamond in the rough,” he added. “They say, ‘If you bring us into a nice, air-conditioned building, that’s OK.’ But there’s a wealth of knowledge, history, and information outdoors.”

The park is FREE and is open from 7AM to 7PM. Download the trail map HERE or get directions HERE

Ancestral Memories preserved in Birmingham’s Oak Hill Cemetery

Oak Hill Cemetery’s tour guide and historian, Wilhelmina Thomas, is featured in a podcast/blog entitled “Love Lives in This Place/The Order of the Good Death”

Death is not frightening, according to Birmingham Historical Society Trustee Wilhelmina Thomas, who leads tours through the historic Oak Hill Cemetery. She is among a number of volunteers who dress in period costumes and portray a deceased character buried there. Ms. Thomas brings to life the stories of Birmingham’s founders, politicians, and civil rights leaders. But she particularly likes to draw attention to the black elitists who are buried there as they are often overlooked in Birmingham’s history.

“The majority of the Black people in the cemetery were business owners, pastors, and started churches,” Wilhelmina explained. “When we’re looking at the Black people buried at Oak Hill, in the late 19th century, they’d have been the elitist. They were defined by the color of their skin and by how much money they had. The Black people who are buried there were very well educated, spoke more than one language, and were trying to build a community.” 

In researching and telling the stories of residents buried there, Wilhelmina Thomas has become a compassionate voice of black history, and along with other volunteers, keeps Oak Hill residents ‘alive’.

Volunteers lead walking tours on the second Saturday of every month. Learn more and get tickets on Oak Hill’s website.

BHS concerns considered for Planned Parkway that could destroy Historic Landmark

It’s rewarding when the efforts of Birmingham Historical Society trustees to preserve a first-class historical site are not only recognized, but seriously considered by city leaders and developers in urban planning. Thanks to the research and site visits of BHS Director Marjorie White, and BHS Trustee and Hoover resident Birgit Kilbeka, plans for a 4 mile parkway that could potentially destroy the landmark Brock’s Gap are now being debated. This article in The Hoover Sun by Jon Anderson highlights the importance of what is being proposed.

An earlier BHS post follows the mile long walk along the railbed. And this BHS article highlights the importance of Brock’s Gap to the City of Birmingham and why it needs to be preserved.

Thank you to Birmingham Historical Society Trustees for bringing historical sites to the attention of developers. And thank you to developers and city planners for listening and responding to these concerns!

Historical Research, Publishing, and Education