Revitalizing the Florentine Building and Second Avenue North
February 27, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
“Surely the Florentine is now protected as a historic structure in the new Second Avenue Historic District?” I said to Pam King as we emerged from the dimly lit John’s Restaurant on March 1, 1983, her first day as the Historic Preservationist for Operation New Birmingham, REV’s predecessor. As we blinked in the sunlight, we looked across 21st Street at the Florentine, an ornate two-story Italianate architectural gem.
“Not really. The new district prevents demolition or defacing it with federal funds, but a developer could knock it down legally with his own funds. That’s how we lost Terminal Station,” said Pam.
“I can’t believe City and State laws don’t protect this splendid building.” I shuddered as I imagined a wrecking ball smashing the marble walls and columns, tall arched windows, and elaborate high relief, terra cotta panels on the facade.
“Demolition could happen anytime in the future, but demolition by neglect is underway now. Water eventually wreaks havoc on terra cotta that’s not sealed. It’s slower, but just as destructive as the wrecking ball.”
Dark streaks from the roof discolored the marble, and a downspout had separated form the gutter. The glass on the second floor window panes painted an incongruous sky blue except for a few with raw plywood. Signs for first floor tenants Shelby Finance Company, Nuke’s Barber Shop, Loretta’s Alterations needed paint. A neon sign for Club 21 blinked above a staircase near the alley. Clearly demolition by neglect.
“We need to get some legal guidance on this from Sam Frazier of Spain and Gillon, a firm under retainer to the Mayor’s Office,” I said as we walked to our office in the Commerce Center.
“I think he’s an officer in the Birmingham Historical Society,” said Pam, a recent graduate of Auburn’s new Master of Historic Preservation degree and a petite young woman with large brown eyes and a blonde pixie haircut.
* * * * *
We were stunned by the white marble walls, two-story ceilings, and an antique safe on display behind stanchions and red velvet ropes. We had entered the First National Bank instead of the lobby of the John Hand Building. After we were directed to the elevator lobby, an elderly guard eyed us as Pam mashed the button. A bronze arrow moved along a semicircle of numbers toward the number one and a bell rang as the walnut doors opened.
On the 17th floor, we found the offices of Spain and Gillon opposite the elevator. The prim gray-haired receptionist peered over rimless glasses, buzzed Mr. Frazier, and directed us to a conference room with a view of the upper floors of the Brown-Marx and the Empire Buildings dating from the early 1900s.
“Mr. Calvert, I presume,” said Sam with his hand extended. “A descendent of the Lords Baltimore, perhaps?”
“I always claim to be,” I replied. I introduced Pam, and he introduced his partner, Alton Parker.
After we declined coffee and settled into red leather captain’s chairs, Sam said, “Per your request, we have researched the law on protection for structures like the Florentine Building. Alton and I believe that Chapters 23 and 24 of the Alabama Code could be the basis for protecting such buildings. Eminent domain is controversial, but code enforcement and rehabilitation are generally well-received here.”
“In fact, the City Council adopted ordinances with facade rehabilitation standards in the Woodlawn, North Birmingham, and Five Points South districts. We see no legal barriers to adding provisions related to historic preservation. We think Jim Baker, the City Attorney, will concur,” added Alton.
“Demolition is our biggest concern, but can we require compliance? Particularly removal of oversized, projecting signs? Every time I drive by the Kliner Furniture sign, I wonder how a two story facade can support the massive sign that begins above the show window and extends higher than the roof. Totally out of scale.”
“Tell us what you want to accomplish, and we’ll look at the statutes and cases in Alabama, ”said Sam. “Here’s the standards for Five Points South.”
I skimmed the pages and saw that they were similar to standards I had drafted with a consultant in Baltimore a dozen years before. A few familiar phrases confirmed that our standards had been imitated, maybe replicated. I looked up with a smile and said, “I am sincerely flattered.”
“You should be,” said Alton who knew of my work as an urban renewal planner in Baltimore. “They’re well-written. We saw no need to re-invent the wheel.”
Pam turned to me and asked if the Baltimore standards would protect the Florentine and other historic structures. I said to the attorneys as well as to her, “We’ll draft some historic preservation objectives and standards.”
* * * * * *
Pam and I walked the four blocks of Second Avenue North Historic District with a camera and a clipboards, we drafted additional standards and sent them to the attorneys. Ten days later Pam and I returned to Spain and Gillon. Waiting in the conference room, we noted that paint had peeled on the window frames of the upper floors of the vacant Brown-Marx building and the sashes were visibly rotten.
“The good news is that in our opinion, we believe your historic standards can be successfully defended in court,” Sam announced in his courtroom baritone. “Unfortunately we cannot effectively deny an owner lawful use of his property, including his right demolish his building. A judge would likely uphold the owner, especially if the property has less economic value than a new building or even a parking lot.”
Pam groaned, and I winced. Sam paused and continued in a professorial tone, “We can, however, authorize the Design Review Committee to delay demolition for six months. By the way, I chair that committee.” He beamed like a schoolboy who has successfully recited a long poem.
“Won’t property owners just wait six months and then demolish it?” I asked.
“We’re buying time,” Alton explained. “During those six months, a developer could purchase the building for renovation. If an important building like the Alabama Theatre is threatened, the City could use its eminent domain powers to acquire the building at fair market value.”
“If that’s the best we can do, let’s put that in place before there’s some owner seeks a demolition permit. It will be easier to get City Council approval if there isn’t an owner opposing it. Can you draft an ordinance with the standards we provided and all the proper ‘where as’ stuff at the beginning?” I said.
“Please, ‘where as’ clauses are recitals, and they could be important if we ever go to court,” said Sam.
“All right, I’ll clear this with the Mayor’s Office and we’ll start talking to Second Avenue merchants and property owners,’ I said.
“Sam, don’t Doug Coretti and Jack Hall now own the Florentine?” said Alton.
Sam pressed his lips together and nodded solemnly.
“And who are those guys?” Pam asked Alton.
“Doug is the best litigator in Alabama on zoning and land use regulations. He’s beat the City of Birmingham in court over and over again,” said Alton who paused and raised his index finger. “But we didn’t represent the City in those cases.”
“The story is that they sued a client for fees and were awarded the building. They probably have a real estate firm manage it for them,” said Sam. “I asked for a sale price a few months ago and never got an answer.”
* * * * *
“Oh shit,” Pam said as we approached Second Avenue. I was to learn that she was not a demure Southern belle. “A billboard,” she said pointing to a huge sign on the roof of the Florentine. “Those attorneys will have to take it down under our standard prohibiting rooftop signs.”
“It’s probably a big part of their annual income,” I said. “Coretti could be our biggest opposition at City Council. Let’s see if we can get most of the other owners to go along with our plan before we visit Mr. Coretti.”
A bell tinkled as we stepped into Storkland Furniture. Stan Blair approached us with a cheerful face that fell when we told him we were not in the market for baby furniture and began explaining our efforts to revitalize Second Avenue. He took a step back and frowned when we said that his projecting sign with a stork with a bundle in its beak would have to be phased out in two years, but brightened when we spoke of a cash rebate for part of the cost. Chrysler’s rebate program on new cars was in full swing. He shrugged and said, “I know you can’t fight City Hall.”
Our next stop was Levy’s Fine Jewelry. Rhoda Denaberg, who Pam later described as part Phyllis Diller and part Lucille Ball, listened politely to us, and said it all sounded wonderful, but we would have to talk to her brother Charles Denaberg, an attorney on Morris Avenue and owner of the building. She smiled and waved as we left the store.
Next door was Beard Furniture, a narrow two-story building with boards over the second story windows and ads covering the facade. One said in large block letters, “10,000 refrigerators.” I tried to mentally calculate the cubic feet required for these refrigerators in the small building between my visits to businesses. I couldn’t quite get to the answer and resolved to figure it out later with a calculator, but never did.
After a couple more stops, I crossed the street to make calls while Pam continued on opposite side. She stepped into Harold’s Furniture featuring new, used and rental furniture and gave our spiel to Harold Lishkof. She reported that he was very pleasant and talkative, but she couldn’t pin him down on the ordinance. She wrote “neutral” on her clipboard.
Behind the counter of Baldone’s Tailoring was a large photograph of Coach Bryant in his classic houndstooth fedora with his arm around a man with a tape measure around his neck. That man was younger than the man behind the counter, but it was him. “To my friend, Butch” was scrawled across the photo and signed “Bear.” I assured him that his tailoring shop and sign met the proposed facade standards, and his property values would improve if the deteriorated buildings in his block were renovated.
“I got friends at City Hall. The Mayor knows me. I like your program, but I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do. Understand?” I said that was fine and asked about Coach Bryant. He said he sold him all his clothes including the fedora. I put him down as “neutral / favorable.
I called George Ladd, the owner of several downtown buildings including a vacant three-story store at Second Avenue and 22nd Street. He said he wanted to meet me and invited me to lunch at La Paree, Birmingham’s premier restaurant before Highlands opened. The recently retired banker met one of the Stockham girls when he was maitre‘d at New York’s Stork Club in the 1950s and married her. Mr. Ladd retained his good looks and a genial manner. He complained that tenants were scarce, but said he always maintained his buildings and would comply with our standards.
In a week, Pam and I talked with all of the merchants and most of the property owners. No one was up in arms about the proposed standards. Some were supportive; most were indifferent. Several said nothing would ever come out of City Hall anyway.
It was time to meet Mr. Coretti. His office was a small one-story building on the western edge of downtown. The receptionist said Mr. Coretti was running behind but would be with us soon. No coffee or water was offered. No autographed photos, framed degrees, or paintings adorned the wood paneling, more suitable for a basement recreation room than a lawyer’s office. Pam and I sat nervously in the small waiting room. We reviewed our map, roster the merchants and owners, and their position on our proposal. Some were supportive, most were neutral, and a few had reservations, but none were opposed—at least not enough to call the mayor or speak out at a City Council hearing. We planned to emphasize to Mr. Coretti that everyone else was ready to renovate their buildings to meet our standards.
After an hour, the receptionist led us down a narrow hallway with a beige and white tile floor. The wood paneling in the reception area continued down the hall and into a small office. A colorful Zoning Map of Birmingham was taped to the wall. While Mr. Coretti was reading a document, he motioned us to two chairs opposite his desk that almost filled the office like a king-sized bed fills a hotel room. He was bald with untamed wisps of hair. Suspenders did not prevent his suit pants from sagging beneath a modest paunch.
As he flipped through a stack of manilla folders, he said casually, “I assume you both will attest that your marriage cannot be saved due to irreconcilable differences?” he said casually. Pam shot me a glance with eyebrows raised. I’m sure I had a similar expression.
“Mr. Coretti, we’re from Operation New Birmingham and we’re here to talk about your property on Second Avenue, the Florentine Building,” I said. “A commercial revitalization project is proposed for that corridor.”
He set aside the stack of folders, nodded, and said, “Oh, yes. I’m sorry we ever took ownership. It’s always something. A real pain in …” His voice trailed off.
After hearing my spiel, he said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that your scheme violates the Alabama Code and the Alabama Constitution. No judge or jury in the state would uphold your proposal. Nonetheless, I will not take you to court because I think it will improve our property value and maybe we can sell the damn building.”
I assured him that similar projects in other cities had resulted in increased property values. I took a deep breath and added, “I must tell you that your rooftop billboard would have to be removed under the standards.”
He glared at me for a long time, and said, “We don’t get much revenue from it. It can go.”
Pam and I were soon on our feet, thanking him, and making our way through the hall and out the door. We congratulated ourselves and said the meeting was worth the wait. Then Pam said, “Do we have irreconcilable differences?” People driving by must have wondered about two people doubled over with laughter on a downtown sidewalk.
* * * * *
At Mayor Arrington request, I scheduled a briefing for Councilman William Bell, Chairman of the Urban Affairs Committee. Bill Green, ONB’s Chairman and business manager for the Birmingham News and Vice-Chairman, Ferd Weil, proprietor of Weil’s Furs, joined us.
The young councilman’s slim build in a boldly pinstriped suit made his Afro seem even larger than it was. It was a jet black halo. He listened to my spiel and said, “I know the mayor supports this proposal, but how about the merchants? I don’t want it reported that I am opposing the business community.” He glanced at Bill Green.
“I can’t guarantee anything, William,” said Bill, but Mike and Pam have talked to all the businesses and owners, and we don’t know of anyone opposed to the proposal.
“Mike, I want to look out from the dais and see the first row filled with supporters. Understand?”
* * * * *
In a few weeks the ordinance was adopted without controversy. Within two years, the rooftop sign at the Florentine was cut up by welders and removed. The Kliner sign came down, Mr. Ladd’s vacant store was brought into compliance, and almost all the facades were renovated.
More important, businesses began to move to Second Avenue in the 1980s. Spain and Gillon renovated the Zinszer Building and Space 111 moved its gallery from 111 21st Street to Second Avenue. Levy’s expanded by renovating Mr. Beard’s deteriorated furniture store. Alabama Title Company. Alabama Title Company bought the building at Second Avenue and 23rd Street. The Liberty Trouser factory and Fix-Play’s fixture and display emporium became loft apartments. Virginia Rekoff converted a two-story, commercial building for a residence. Former congressman built a new townhouse on a parking lot.
In subsequent years, Gallery Furniture and several other commercial buildings became loft apartments or condominiums. The Urban Standard coffee house became a center for residents, business people and hipsters. The Rogue Tavern, The Collins, El Bario, Pale Eddie’s Pour House, Bamboo, and other restaurants bring people to the sidewalks after dark. What’s Up on Second, a shop with an eclectic inventory of curiosities, and Charm, a gift store, added vitality to what had become the “Main Street” of the Loft District.
* * * * * *
In 2015, Mayor William Bell, his wavy gray hair pomaded and combed straight back, presided at the Grand Opening of Coretti Catering’s new home in the Florentine Building. The marble walls reflected the five crystal chandeliers that sparkled beneath the high ceiling. The second floor looked like the 1920s night club it was when it opened in 1927. Waiters circulated through the well-dressed crowd with trays of champagne flutes balanced on their fingertips. The City Federal condominiums and the lights of downtown were framed in the tall arched windows.
Mayor Bell held the microphone to his lips and intoned, “Tonight we celebrate this magnificent restoration, the revival of the Loft District, and the rebirth of downtown Birmingham.” He paused, someone clapped, and everyone joined in. “I want to thank Rebecca Coretti and her husband Ken Effinger who brought their catering business to downtown. Rebecca’s late father, Attorney Doug Coretti, who had a vision for the Florentine and began the renovation in the 1980s. I wish he were here to see it. In addition, I want to recognize members of the City Council, Representative Terri Sewall, Senator Rodger Smitherman, …”
After naming many people who made no contribution whatsoever to the Florentine’s restoration, Mayor Bell concluded with what his speech writer referred to as the “BOMFOG: Brotherhood Of Man, Fatherhood Of God.” Everyone cheered as they made their way to the closest bar in the room.