Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Tutwiler Hotel

A lot of people don't realize that the Tutwiler Hotel located at 2021 Park Place near Linn Park in downtown Birmingham is not the original Tutwiler Hotel.

The building we know as The Tutwiler was originally the Ridgely Apartments.  The Ridgely Apartments was built in 1913 by Robert Jemison, Jr. and Edward Tutwiler to serve as a high end apartment complex.  It consisted of a total of 120 rooms and apartments.  By the time Temple Jemison decided to transform the Ridgely into the new Tutwiler Hotel in 1986, the Ridgely only had between 30 and 35 tenants left in the entire building.  Most of these tenants were elderly people who had lived in the building for decades.  The rest of the building was vacant and in serious need of repair.

Photo of the Ridgely Apartments shortly after its grand opening, circa 1913

The original Tutwiler Hotel  was a 13 story brick and limestone luxury hotel located on the southeast corner of 5th Avenue North and 20th Street.  Constructed in 1914 by a group of local investors.  It closed in 1972 and was demolished in 1974.

The Tutwiler in 1930
Lobby of the Tutwiler in 1930

In 1913 the President of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company complained to Robert Jemison, Jr. of the lack of decent hotel accommodations in the city.  Jemison teamed up with Harvey G. Woodward, W.P.G. Harding and Major Edward M. Tutwiler, who had just sold his interest in the Birmingham Coal and Iron Company to the Woodward Iron Company the year before.  Major Tutwiler agreed to underwrite the first mortgage and the creation of the Tutwiler Luxury Hotel was off and running.

Major Edward Magruder Tutwiler 

Robert Jemison, Jr.

William  P. G. Harding

The lead architect, New Yorker William Lee Stoddard and local architect William Leslie Welton, accompanied by Hotelier Robert R. Meyer, visited the vanguard of the "Metropolitan Hotels" of the day in other cities to study both their best features and their worst mistakes.  The result blended the Slaten Hotel in Cincinnati, the Blackston Hotel in Chicago, the Vanderbilt hotel in New York and the McAlpin Hotel in New York.

When it opened, it was like nothing the area had ever seen before.  Among other luxuries, the interior featured what the Birmingham Age-Herald proclaimed to be the "Biggest Lobby in America" furnished with heavy "Elizabethan" furniture and dressed with marble walls.  The developers spent $400,000.00 on the furnishings alone.  That figure equals to $9,642,585.86 in today's money.

The doors officially opened on June 15, 1914 and all the leading citizens of the area turned out in droves dressed in their best formal attire to see the "Grand Dame of Southern Hotels".  

The Tutwiler consisted of 325 rooms.  All were equipped with either a bath or shower and telephones.  Rates ranged from $1.50 to $6.00 per room.  That would be the equivalent of $36.59 to $146.34 in today's money.

For the next 60 years, it was a hub of Birmingham playing host to hundreds of celebrities, politicians and dignitaries.

President Warren G. Harding presided over a luncheon in his honor at the hotel during the Birmingham Semicentennial in 1921. Charles Lindbergh held a press conference in the Louis XIV suite in 1927.  In 1937, actress Tallulah Bankhead threw a rousing post-wedding party in the Continental Room which for decades hosted lunches and dinners with live big band music 6 days a week.  Also, novelist Jack Bethea hanged himself in one of the guest rooms in July, 1928.

In June, 1967 the Tutwiler was sold to the local Great Southern Investment Corporation for $1.7M.  James P. Paris, head of the investment group, announced they expected to spend up to $1M to renovate the entire hotel and planned to market the hotel's Regency Room Ballroom as an alternative to "The Club".  However, just 5 years later, the hotel closed for good on April 1, 1972 and was demolished on January 26, 1974.

1985 saw a new interest in the Tutwiler and it was decided to convert the Ridgely Apartments, which was still owned by the Tutwiler family, into a new luxury hotel named after the original.  by 1986, the renovations were completed and the new Tutwiler opened to guests.

It now features 149 rooms.  In 2006 the hotel came under new management and a massive $9M renovation was begun in stages.  Below are a few pictures taken in 2006 in a couple of the unrenovated rooms.

The hotel and the restaurant located in the hotel are said to be haunted by the ghost of Major Tutwiler.  The story goes that the Major stuck around after having lived in the Ridgely apartments prior to his death.  His ghost has a habit of knocking on doors late at night and has been blamed for mischief in the restaurant.

Hotel lore says that a bartender a few years ago kept getting into trouble for leaving the light and stoves on after closing.  This went on for many nights consecutively.  Finally one morning the manager came in to find someone had prepared a large meal and taken out a bottle of wine.  The staff began addressing the Major when they closed at night saying "Goodnight Major" and asking him not to make mischief while they were away.  That seemed to do the trick and while knocks on the doors, lights turning themselves on and off are still least the stoves in the kitchen are off and no ghostly meals have been prepared. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Vestavia Estate

George Battey Ward was born March 1, 1867 in Atlanta, Georgia and died September 11, 1940 in Birmingham, Alabama.  He was the 13th Mayor of Birmingham.  His parents George R. & Margaret Ward operated the Relay House Hotel.  His mother was one of the founding members of the Episcopal Church of the Advent.

When George was 16, he dropped out of school and got a job as a runner for the Charles Linn National Bank of Birmingham.  On December 8, 1888, while George was on a run for his employer, he passed by the Jefferson County Courthouse.  A large mob had gathered and was rushing the courthouse in an attempt to lynch a murderer named Richard Hawes.  George narrowly missed a bullet fired by the police into the crowd in an attempt to disperse them.

George Ward in 1905

George Ward was first elected Mayor of Birmingham in 1905 and remained in that position until 1910.  During his tenure, he was instrumental in passing prohibition laws in the city.  He also codified and published the first Birmingham Municipal Code.  It was his idea for the city to purchase the water and sewer system making it the first city utility company.  It was under his direction that the city bought 100 acres and turned it into the George Ward Park that is enjoyed by thousands to this day.

After leaving the Mayor's office, George had a failed run at the Sheriff's office.  His opponent ran a campaign whereby he asserted that because George was Episcopalian, he was a part of the "Catholic Conspiracy". Once his run for the office of the Sheriff was lost, George turned his sights on another position of power and he served as President of the very first Birmingham City Commission.  Ward retired from politics in 1920 and spent the next couple of years traveling the globe.

George Ward in 1920

In 1923, Ward purchased a 20 acre plot of land on the ridge of Shades Mountain where he created a very unique residence that he called "The Vestavia Estate".

Aerial view of the Vestavia Estate in 1923

During one of his trips to Italy, Ward purchased a souvenir model of what was then called a "Temple of Vesta".  It is now known as Temple of Hercules Victor.  He brought that little souvenir back to Alabama with him and work began on a truly remarkable and unique estate.  George intended for this to eventually become his final resting place.  However, before he died, the County laws had changed and when George died, it had become illegal for him to be buried in his beloved temple and George was interred at Elmwood Cemetery on the north side of Birmingham.

The main floor, encircled by a porch, was an unbroken 26 foot diameter circular room which Ward used as his living room and library.  A circular stair accessed his private suite complete with a small bath and large closet covered by partition like doors.  Clerestory windows in a raised part of the roof provided natural light.  Stone fireplaces were built into the thickness of the outside walls.

Temple of Vesta circa 1958

Ward also had elaborate gardens planted next to the house including carved hedges, ponds, statuary and miniature temple styled dog houses for his 3 dogs.  But the focal point of the gardens was the  Sibyl Temple, a domed gazebo of the monopteros style.

George Wards house (Temple of Vesta) and the Temple of Sibyl circa 1929

Temple of Sibyl in her "new" location circa 2009

Murals inside the Sibyl Temple

Vestavia (as it became known) soon rose to the top of Birmingham's best known and most beloved attractions.  Visible from the Montgomery Highway and depicted on postcards it became a must see for tourists and locals alike.

Ward was an avid entertainer and hosted numerous parties where servants dressed as Roman soldiers and guests would comes wearing togas.  Occasionally Ward would host public tours of his home.

Harper's Magazine editor, George Leighton, described one such occasion in 1937 (quote courtesy of
In the afternoon, over beyond Red Mountain which walls in the sprawling city, a local capitalist has opened his grounds to visitors. His mansion, built in imitation of a Roman temple, is cylindrical in shape, made of bits of ore cemented together. By the steps of the mansion stand two black servants in white jackets. One has a felt hat under his arm, the other carries a cap in his hand. Each has pinned to his jacket a green-felt label embroidered in yellow with the Roman standard, the letters SPQR, and his name; Lucullus for one, Caius Cassius for the other. Under a tree is an elaborate sort of Roman throne, tinted green and bronze. Above, swinging from a branch, is a radio concealed in a bird house. Nearby are two dog houses, built like miniature Parthenon's, with classic porticoes and tiny pillars. One is labelled Villa Scipio. There is a pool filled with celluloid swans and miniature galleons and schooners. Scattered about are more benches, urns, and painted-plaster sculptures. Among the shrubs and pink-rose hedges trail a procession of men and women, marveling at the splendors, but tired and oppressed by the overpowering heat. Toward sundown the crowd thins out; the Fords and Chevrolets go crossing down the hill.

When George Ward died in 1940, his wishes were to be buried on his estate with the Sibyl Temple to serves as his mausoleum, with a vault constructed into its foundation.  However, by then, Jefferson County law prevented him from being buried on the grounds and he was instead interred at Elmwood Cemetery.

A codicil in his will, dated April 13, 1940, stipulated that the estate be given to either Jefferson County or the City of Birmingham to be used as a city park.  However, because his debts far exceeded his assets, the executors of his will, listed it for sale for $30,000.  The estate sat unsold and unoccupied for several years and eventually fell into disrepair.

In 1947 a developed named Charles Byrd bought it and opened a restaurant called Vestavia Roman Rooms as an attraction for the new subdivision that joined the estate.  The new subdivision was called Vestavia Hills.

The outside cover of a menu from the Roman Rooms

While the restaurant with its banquet hall was a popular attraction for a few years, by 1957, the novelty had runs its course and in 1958 the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church bought the property and moved their services from its current location at the City Hall to the former banquet rooms of the Roman Rooms Restaurant.

Pastor John Wiley observed that his congregation was repeating a pattern established by the early church, which made churches of former pagan temple in the Roman Empire.

By 1968 the church, over massive public protests, had decided to demolish Ward's former home in favor of constructing a new larger church.  Even the Alabama Historical Commission chimed in on the outcry.  However, the house was demolished in 1971 with original architectural details and contents sold at auction.  The church donated the smaller Sibyl Temple to the Vestavia Hills Garden Club which moved it to its current location.

Photo taken during the demolition of Ward's former house in 1971

George Ward was a very public figure who loved to throw lavish themed parties and, one might say, lived life outside of the box. The paradox to his life is that while a very public figure, very little is known about his private life.  This makes the story of his imaginative home and grounds all the more appealing to me.