When the Thomas Jefferson Hotel opened in 1929, it opened against the backdrop of a vibrant and promising city. Birmingham seemed to be on its way to greatness, and for the next few decades the hotel was a significant part of the city’s story.
But as Birmingham’s luck seemed to run out, so did the building’s. After a string of ownership changes, renovations and fires, the building closed its doors in 1983. After its abandonment, the former hotel sat vacant on Second Avenue North with only remnants to offer any hint of what it once was. One of those remnants was what was left of a rooftop tower.
Now, the building is getting another chance to be a part of Birmingham’s history. As overseen by Stewart Perry Construction, the former hotel is being transformed into an apartment building that will fuse its former glory with features designed for the future. Complete with a restaurant, an event venue and retail space, the new Thomas Jefferson Tower is on its way to a second chance.
In a summary of the building’s history, historical consultant David Schneider wrote that the Thomas Jefferson Hotel “served as one of the city’s principal hotels” for decades after it opened. The hotel hosted guests like Mickey Rooney and Ethel Merman, according to Schneider, as well as coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who rented a suite during the Iron Bowl.
After several renovations, the name was changed to the Downtown Cabana in 1972, but a decline in business and several safety concerns led it to close 11 years later. A failed attempt to renovate the building in the early 2000s resulted in the erection of the “Leer Tower” sign, but it has remained empty for the past few decades.
Robbie Cather, project manager for the Stewart Perry Company, spoke to Weld about the renovations, including the recent restoration of one of the building’s most talked-about features. Partially destroyed in the 1950s, the tower mounted on the building’s roof is widely regarded as one of the last rooftop zeppelin mooring masts in the world.
On Saturday August 6, a roughly 3000-pound replica of the top half of the structure was lifted by helicopter into place on top of the building.
While, according to Schneider, “historical records are unclear as to its intended function,” Cather is convinced that the structure was at one point meant for dirigible dockings. “In 1927, they were very optimistic about the use of zeppelins and dirigibles with intercontinental travel,” said Cather, who compares similarities in its structure to other mooring towers. But when technology changed, favoring airplanes as the preferred form of air travel, dirigible towers became a part of history.
Even so, according to Schneider, “the beacon light atop the Thomas Jefferson Hotel dirigible mooring mast did serve an important role in air navigation… and was itself an important local landmark for many years.”
But the dirigible mast is only one part of the renovation. Inside, the crew continues to restore features such as the wooden revolving door which was part of the original design, and which cost roughly $60,000 to return to its original condition. The first two stories will also retain their original marble columns and terrazzo flooring, as well as restored versions of the original ornate ceiling designs.
On the residential floors, the renovation will result in a collision of old and new. All of the apartments will feature new quartz countertops and stainless steel kitchen appliances, alongside the original windows and plaster ceilings. “Where the two come together, I think, is the most interesting part of the whole building,” said Cather.
The apartments will also include all-in-one LG washer/dryer units, and residents will have access to hi-speed wireless internet, thanks to fiber-optics installed throughout the entire building. “You really have an opportunity in apartment buildings like this to wire all that up and bring in the latest technology that would surpass what you could maybe get in a residential neighborhood,” said Cather.
That technology also will be seen in the building’s fitness center and complimentary cyber café. Amenities expected will include valet parking, a basement media center and a farmers market. Brandon Cain, the name behind Post Office Pies and Saw’s Soul Kitchen in Avondale, plans to open a restaurant by the name of Roots and Revelry on the first floor as well.
In the midst of Birmingham’s own revival, the newly-renovated Thomas Jefferson Tower will offer a window into Birmingham’s past as well as its future. With so many new apartment projects in the city in 2016, the tower’s historical significance, combined with its new updates, have the potential to set it apart and make it a significant part of the city’s history once again.
Thomas Jefferson Tower is located at 1623 Second Ave. N. Pre-leasing is in progress, and the building is expected to open this fall. For more information, visit TJTower.com.