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.   

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