Alabama Gas Corporation has announced that it is salvaging “historic elements” from the demolition of the historic railway freight building and adjoining dock on 14th Street North. Brick, support beams and trusses from the depot and dock are being salvaged and transported to Rickwood Field, where they will be used to build a new batting facility adjacent to the ballfield.
Energen Corporation, Alagasco’s parent company (pending completion of the recent acquisition of Alagasco by the Laclede Group, of St. Louis), has donated $50,000 toward construction of the new Rickwood batting building. Alagasco and the nonprofit Friends of Rickwood Field, along with Rives Construction, Davis Architects and Stewart Perry Construction, came together around an opportunity to acknowledge the historic character of the depot while also helping to “improve and enrich America’s Oldest Ballpark,” Alagasco president and COO Dudley Reynolds said.
“This partnership enables us to honor the history of the freight depot and help preserve and celebrate Rickwood Field, one of Alabama’s most valuable historic landmarks,” Reynolds said in a news release. “We are grateful we will be able to repurpose the materials from those structures in such a meaningful and rewarding way.”
The announcement from Alagasco came Wednesday afternoon, as construction crews were at work disassembling the depot and dock. Built in 1928, the depot occupied the prominent northwest corner of an 8.5-acre site that will house the company’s new employee operations center. Alagasco expects to employ up to 200 people at the center, which is scheduled to open in April 2015.
Alagasco’s plan to demolish the building was approved by the city of Birmingham’s Design Review Committee in January, a move that sparked ongoing opposition from civic activists and historic preservationists who called on Alagasco to preserve the building by selling it to a private developer. In approving the demolition, Design Review Committee members have said, the committee accepted Alagasco’s contention that the building had structural problems that made adapting it for reuse prohibitively expensive, if not impossible.
Efforts to preserve the depot were spearheaded by I Believe in Birmingham, a civic group led by Joseph Baker. Alagasco officials met with Baker in February, telling him their construction schedule could allow two weeks to receive formal proposals from prospective developers for the property, which is near Innovation Depot, Regions Field and Railroad Park — some of the most dynamic real estate in Birmingham. According to the company, no proposals were submitted prior to that deadline, which expired on Feb. 25, though others say that legitimate proposals were advanced, even if not formally, that might have preserved the building.
Informed of Alagasco’s announcement of the partnership on the Rickwood project, Baker said he was “very happy for Rickwood Field.” But, he added, while Alagasco’s actions show “some effort to acknowledge” the need for more aggressive protection of historic structures throughout the city, those who advocated for a better alternative than the parking area that will occupy the former site of the depot can only be disappointed in the outcome.
“I do not accept the contention that tearing down this building was necessary,” Baker said. “This is not a good approach to city planning or urban design.”
As for the Alagasco donation to Rickwood, Baker said those opposing the company’s plans “maintained from the beginning that if we could not save the building, we wanted to see parts of it reused in a good way.” Still, he wishes that one victory did not come at the expense of another.
“It’s a nice gesture,” Baker said. “Certainly it’s a good thing that these materials are going to be reused to address a need at one of our cultural institutions. That’s important. But it doesn’t address the real issue of taking a historic building and demolishing it for a parking lot.”
Friends of Rickwood is the nonprofit organization that has worked for more than 20 years to preserve Rickwood Field, which was built in 1910 and is the oldest baseball park in the world. One longtime member of that group called the Alagasco announcement “a ninth-inning grand slam” for Rickwood, where a new batting building has been a need for Miles College and the several local high schools that play games there since the previous structure was destroyed by a tornado that passed through the area several years ago.
“We had accumulated a little money and were going to put up something just so these kids could have an adequate place to take batting practice before games,” said Tom Cosby, who has been involved with the Friends of Rickwood since its inception. “Now, Rickwood is getting a repurposed 1928 building that will fit right in with the historic character of the ballpark itself.
“This is really going to increase the value of Rickwood as a civic asset,” Cosby added. “I hate to see any building demolished, but I think it’s great that parts of that building will have another life at Rickwood. It’s another Birmingham success story.”
Architect Cheryl Morgan agreed that building the batting facility at Rickwood is “a good solution for adaptive reuse.” As a member of the Design Review Committee, she also pointed out that reuse was “something that Design Review requested” of Alagasco. Morgan also expressed “disappointment” in Alagasco’s efforts to find a buyer for the property, but said that if the company lives up to the commitment to downtown that it says the new operations center represents, the entire saga could have as happy an ending as Rickwood Field.
“I hope there will be a time when Alagasco’s commitment to that site means that they will see the need for more of a building footprint there, with less emphasis on parking,” Morgan said. “In that sense, I hope the operations center is vastly successful, because if they develop it the right way, it could be something that really can play a big part in knitting the urban fabric there back together.”