City Hall: 1901 - 1950. Southeastern corner of 4th Ave. North and 19th Street. Four storey structure.
Postcard representation of City Hall after a fire in 1925 destroyed the tower.
Southern Club: 1890’s - 1967. Replaced by the AmSouth/Regions Center Tower at 20th Street and 5th Avenue North.
Hillman Hotel: 1900’s - ? Six storey structure.
The Hillman was located at 4th Ave. and 19th Street North.
Molton Hotel: 1914 - 1979. 5th Avenue North and 20th Street. Eight storey structure with 200 rooms.
Birmingham News Building: 1917 - 2007. Six storey structure.
Birmingham International Raceway: 1906 - 2009. Video at al.com of the demolition.
Lunsford Hotel: 1892 - 2009. Four storey structure.
Few, if any, of the buildings above were demolished on account of cited structural deficiencies or because the integrity of the building had been compromised. Most of these buildings were constructed during Birmingham’s expansionist phases, and were thus constructed so well that it would have taken nothing short of a fire, earthquake or wrecking ball to bring them down. This survey does not include demolitions for which I was unable to find photographs or demolitions perceived to be “minor.” Also excluded were any buildings reported to have been demolished on account of fire damage. The average age of the demolished buildings is generally less than one hundred years, and this is true also of many of the demolitions I found no photographic documentation for. The most common building type targeted for demolition in this abbreviated survey appears to be hotels. This could be only because Birmingham hotels tended to be grandiose buildings and were thus better documented than residences or other building types, or because Birmingham has been host to numerous hotels throughout its history. Birmingham’s most photographed buildings were also its most picturesque. I have also included a few buildings, such as Hixson Hall, which are aesthetic monstrosities, but which embody energy just the same as any other building. Many of the residential building demolitions are so numerous as to be nearly undocumentable, and are for this reason are not represented here.
The service life of these buildings was far from being exhausted. Whenever structural deficiencies are cited as the cause of demolition, it is probably more through neglect rather than substantive problems relating to the building’s durability. Many of these buildings, if not all of them, including the myriad demolished buildings unpictured here, were demolished before the end of their useful lives. In part, this is because the form of a building is conflated with its function. A building designed to be a hotel does not have to be a hotel for the rest of its service life, but can be retrofitted for other needs. If it is costly to renovate such buildings, this is only because our economy and culture both incentivize new construction, making it more profitable to demolish and rebuild than renovate the existing structure. Hixson Hall was demolished because of the exorbitant cost associated with modernizing the building such that it would meet modern building code requirements. The Essex House was sold off by the Birmingham Housing Authority after the costs of renovation exceeded the original estimates, making waking for the Energen Plaza.
Frequently, we observe that relatively new buildings are demolished because they are not amenable to a proposed development or because they do not conform to the needs of future uses. This could also be a consequence of the dearth of creative imagination that is often rampant among new developers. Obviously, if a building is to be considered “useful” it must conform to some demonstrable need. Few buildings are tolerated, in our utilitarian society, simply because they embody some Platonic ideal of a beautiful building. With a city as rife with vacant or abandoned structures as Birmingham, there’s simply no conceivable reason why we should be building new multi-million dollar outlet malls, when many of these buildings could have stood for centuries with proper maintenance. The correlation between the structural systems and materials and the service life of a structure is tenuous. The Paul Revere House, in Boston’s North End, was built in 1680 and, with only a modicum of renovations for a structure of its age, it stands to this day. There are buildings in Birmingham that were not only built from more “durable” materials, but were better constructed, and which were demolished within fifty to sixty years. Thus, a building’s adaptability to unforeseen future uses might be the most critical factor contributing to its longevity, and not the structural systems involved in its construction. In certain cases, neglect can also be a boon, for many of Birmingham’s finest buildings are still standing simply because no one wanted to sink the capital outlay into what was believed to be a moribund city.