Thomas Jefferson Hotel
Planning and Construction
The hotel was planned and developed by the Union Realty Company in November of 1925 at an estimated cost of $1.5 million. The architect for the project, David O. Whilldin, was a well known local architect with offices in both Tuscaloosa and downtown Birmingham. Construction started in May of 1926 but was halted in April of 1927 when one of the chief project financiers failed. Work would be resumed in July of 1928 when a new holding company was formed. The hotel would open on September 7th, 1929 at a final cost of over $2.5 million. During its opening week, the hotel featured nightly banquets with dances showcasing an orchestra from New York.
The hotel featured an ornate marble lobby and a large grand dining room. A rooftop mooring mast was intended for dirigibles, but would never be used. The first floor featured six shops with a billiard room and barber shop located in the basement. On the second floor, the ballrooms and dining room opened up to rooftop terraces. The hotel opened with over 7,000 pieces of silverware, 5,000 glasses and 4,000 sets of linens. One early newspaper ad even went as far to say the hotel was "Southern charm and hospitality at its happy best, wonderful best. That's the pride of Birmingham - The Thomas Jefferson". A bellboy who worked at the hotel in 1936 said the hotel was tightly supervised by a "snobby" manager and his wife, but it was still a showplace of unparalleled amenities.
The hotel is best known for its architecture in the Renaissance Revival style. The base of the hotel is set off by Corinthian colonnades encrusted with white terra-cotta. The fourth floor features an entablature, then continues in brick for the next 13 floors. The last two floors are encased with ornamental terra-cotta including the use of a balustrade on the last floor. The corners of the hotel were clad in white brick rising to the top where a sculpted satyr sits upon twisted rope molding. Along the facade of the building, the windows are separated by tan brick topped with a white acanthus leaf.
The Golden Years
In 1933 a $35,000 renovation took place. Retail spaces were removed and the empty space was merged into the hotel, creating a larger hotel lobby that included a new electric fireplace. The dining room was expanded and a ballroom was constructed over the roof of the terrace on the second floor. It was the first of many renovations that would be partaken by various owners.
The second floor featured many rooms including the Terrace Ballroom, Windsor, Jefferson, Green, Gold, Board, and Director's Room. The hotel operated laundry and valet services for its guests. Each room was air conditioned and along with a private bath featured such entertainment as a radio, television and Muzak. The Thomas Jefferson entertained many celebrities over its time. Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, George Burns, Jerry Lee Lewis, Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, Pete Rose and Ray Charles all spent nights in the hotel. The hotel also featured suites for legendary Alabama Head Football Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and Alabama Governor George Wallace for when they were in Birmingham.
In 1966 the hotel was once again renovated at the tune of $500,000. The hotel was modernized with automatic elevators, ice makers, stainless steel kitchen equipment and new carpeting. WATV-AM also broadcasted from their production studios located inside the hotel.
Decline of the Luxury Hotel
In 1972 the proprietor sold the hotel to Ernest Woods who then sold it to TraveLodge franchisees W.C. Maddox and Sam Raine. The hotel was then renamed in 1972 to the Cabana Hotel. The 1970's would see the decline of the luxury hotel. The original ornate carpet was replaced with shag carpet to keep up with modern trends. It was during this time that downtown Birmingham saw a shift of trends. New growth and development began on the north side of downtown, leaving the aging hotel by itself. By the late 1970's, two other notable hotels in downtown Birmingham closed. Once the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex opened, the rest of the business growth went north.
Once again, the building would change hands with J.M. Glodt buying the building in the late 1970's. During this time, the hotel finally lost its luster. On November 26th 1980, a fire destroyed the ninth floor hallway. Although no one was injured, people were left trapped on the upper floors because the building did not have a fire escape. Another fire broke out on July 14th, 1981, on the 14th floor, this time with injuries. In 1981 the hotel was now a second rate $200 a month apartment building with fewer than 100 residents.
Closure and Proposals
The owner, Glodt, had labeled the building as a residential complex although he did not have a license to operate the building as a rooming house. The building would be closed on May 31st, 1983 after failing to meet health department regulations and fire codes. To bring the building back to code, the plumbing would need to be fixed, along with adding sufficient lighting and smoke detectors.
In 1987 Sam Raine and Sammy and Norman Ceravolo won the hotel at an auction and regained ownership. Sam would operate a computer shop on the lower floor of the former hotel until his death in 2003. In 2005 the Leer Corporation out of Modesto, CA submitted a $20 million proposal to convert the building into upscale condominiums. Plans called to have a rooftop swimming pool and four condominiums per floor. In January of 2006, Leer Tower Birmingham, LLC executed a mortgage with the Ceravolo brothers and with the family of the late Sam Raine in May of 2007. Leer Corporation could not secure local financing and the property went into foreclosure in June of 2008. The company left the building gutted and it fell into further disrepair when the basement became flooded by an underground stream and vagrants squatted in the upper floors.
The property is currently enlisted by the owners to Watts Realty and is under contract by an out-of-state investment group.
The Thomas Jefferson Hotel, once heralded as the city's crowning gem, would go bankrupt before its completion and struggle to maintain itself all the way to the end. The building is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Forgotten Southeast would like to thank Chip Watts of Watts Realty for allowing us to photograph this majestic building and Jim Huckestein of Hendon and Huckestein Architects for providing us
copies of the original floor plans.
Unless otherwise noted all historical pictures are courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Tutwiler Collections.
1. Bryant, Joseph D. "Glory Days Long Gone for Thomas Jefferson Hotel."
Birmingham Business Journal 7 July 2002: n. pag. Print.
2. Hodges, Sam, and Patrick Rupinski. "Hotel Once Heralded as City's Crowning Gem."
Birmingham Post Hearld 15th July 1981: n. pag. Print.
3. McMullan, Michael. "Cabana Hotel to Be Closed." Birmingham Post Hearld
11 May 1983: n. pag. Print.
4. Barber, Dean. "Auction Brings No Buyer for Decaying Hotel." Birmingham News
18 Sept. 1987: n. pag. Print.
Tomberlin, Michael. "Leer Tower Lists Lobby, Rooftop as Focal Points."
Birmingham News 23 Nov. 2006: n. pag. Print.
6. Tomberlin, Michael. "Old Hotel Crumbles as Project Collapses."
Birmingham News 05 May 2009: n. pag. Print.
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