Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Forest Park neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama

The Forest Park neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama has often been described as a neighborhood of sidewalks, old trees and neighbors who get out and meet each other.  Driving through this neighborhood is like being transported back in time to an era when neighbors knew one another well enough to borrow the occasional cup of sugar.  A time when children walked around the block to visit their friends versus sitting in their rooms with their eyes glued to an electronic gadget.

Neighborhood amenities include Highland Golf Course and Triangle Park (a meeting place for families and friends).

This area also includes the South Avondale neighborhood which is home to Avondale Elementary and the newly renovated Avondale Park.

41st Street has received national attention within the last year due to the impressive new commercial development, offering residents from the neighborhood and surrounding areas a vibrant destination, complete with a huge and enormously popular local farmer's market, brewery, bars, retail, and dining.

Forest Park Village, located on Clairmont Avenue, a shopping and dining destination, includes a café, the historic Silvertron Café, Full Circle and Zoe's Boutique. Naked Art Gallery is a favorite spot for local art lovers.

Forest Park is minutes from downtown and UAB. It is very close to Highway 280 and Interstates 20, 59, and 65, as well as the airport.

It sits on the northern slope of Red Mountain southeast of downtown Birmingham.   The main residential neighborhoods were designed and developed by the Jemison Company beginning in 1906. 

Robert Jemison, Jr. Mansion built 1907 on the
main street that runs through the heart of Forest Park

The first subdivision in Forest Park was Mountain Terrace.  The same patterns of residential roads following the contours of the hillside was continued in later subdivisions through the next two decades.  These include Glenwood, Valley View, Altamont and Forest Hill subdivisions.

High atop the Red Mountain sits the Hassinger Castle at the corners of Carlisle and Wellington.  This massive castle was built in 1929 by William and Virginia Hassinger.  It boasts extensive gardens, garden ponds, grotto's and locally mined limestone.  The interior is finished with European woods and every attention to detail was meticulous right down to no visible hinges anywhere in the house. 

Hassinger Castle
Hassinger Castle

This home sits on Cliff road coming down Red Mountain towards Forest Park

Once you enter Forest Park, you will notice the variety in housing styles.  Below are a couple of apartment buildings that, while apartments, still speak volumes to the esthetic of the area.

As is evidenced by the pictures below, the housing in this area ranges from typical turn of the century Birmingham bungalows to baronial mansions.  Their designs range from Federal architecture to modern and their lots range from generously sized rolling lawns to postage stamp lots.  

The contrast in housing is often striking.  It's not unusual to find a low slung working class home sitting directly across the street from a brick palace complete with spiked wrought iron fencing, carport and carriage house. 

The landscape architect who designed the exterior feel of this area brought trees from Europe to plant in abundance.  He brought over sycamore, oak, hackberry and poplar trees.  Grand and stately trees that give the area a strong aura of rootedness.  Moss and ivy covered stone walls also land a feel of permanence to the neighborhood. 

This is the McWane mansion on Clairmont.  Anyone who has ever
been to Birmingham knows of the McWane Center which was created
by the original owners of this magnificent mansion.

In the first quarter of the 20th century this was THE place to live for the area's most influential people.  The roster of home owners and former home owners reads like a who's who of Jefferson county with former mayors, doctors, lawyers, judges, school superintendents and successful local artisans liberally included on that list.

Through the great depression and world war II, the area maintained its stability but slowly in the 1950's, it began to decline.  The trend of that time was to build smaller, ranch style houses.  They were cheaper to own and cheaper to maintain.  Many home owners gave into developers, sold their large old houses and headed to newer subdivisions.  The developers wasted no time in tearing down these beautiful old homes and building apartments in their place.

The decline stopped and an upswing began in the late 1960's when the baby boomers began to shop for their homes.  It was at this time that the movement of historic preservation really took off and these baby boomers were fighting to own homes in Forest Park.  A lot of these baby boomers grew up in Forest Park but their parents had moved them to Hoover or Vestavia during the declining years.

Another event that drew this community together and gave it an even stronger neighborhood spirit happened in the early 1970's when highway planners designed an airport expressway from the eastern area of Birmingham right through Forest Park.  A neighborhood association was formed and they fought that expressway right off the drawing boards.

The late 1970's saw the neighborhood association apply for the area to be a national historic district.  They surveyed 626 structures, prepared histories, photographs, maps and other supporting data of them that culminated in the 1980 listing of Forest Park on the National Register of Historic Places.  This offers them some protection against incompatible redevelopment.  I doubt they will ever have to face the threat of a freeway cutting through their neighborhood again.

Forest Park is worth a drive through on a nice afternoon.  Who knows?  You just might find your dream home there.

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