April 11, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
As I unpacked boxes at my new apartment in Birmingham in 1982, I received a call from someone named Nimrod Long who said his friend Philip Morris was also on the line. I had never met anyone named Nimrod, and the other name reminded me of a vintage cigarette commercial that had a uniformed bellhop cry “Call for Philip Morris.”
After I stammered a greeting, Mr. Long congratulated me as the new President of Operation New Birmingham and said that he and Philip wanted to meet with me about a proposal to renovate Woodrow Wilson Park. Mr. Morris apologized for contacting me before I began my new position, and continued in a rapid, staccato voice, “We think renovation of the park could be a catalyst for revitalization of downtown. Could you have breakfast with us tomorrow at Bogue’s?”
“I guess so. Say 8 am? How will I know you?” I replied.
“Don’t worry, we’ll recognize you from your picture in yesterday’s Post-Herald,” said Nimrod.
I had been to Bogue’s, a formica table breakfast and lunch place with matronly waitresses who called everyone Hon. In the morning, I stepped into Bogue’s and a guy at a table just inside stood and extended his hand, introduced himself as Nimrod Long. Philip Morris and Temple Tutwiler also shook hands. Nimrod, a soft-spoken guy in a gray suit motioned me toward the booth next to Philip, a thin man with a sport coat and a skinny tie. Temple was younger than the rest of us and had light hair and rosy cheeks.
After welcoming me to Birmingham and inquiring about where I would be living and when I would start work, Temple announced, “We want to rebuild Woodrow Wilson Park. It’s the focal point of Twentieth Street, the public park between City Hall and the Courthouse. The Museum of Art and the Main Library front on this park. It’s the center of downtown.”
Philip leaned forward and quickly added, “Temple’s right. The park is strategically located between Birmingham Green, the landscaped median and brick sidewalks along Twentieth Street built a few years ago and the Garden Walk that provides pedestrian access under I-59/20 to the Convention Center. Very important.”
I nodded and Nimrod said, “The park was last improved in 1920. The shrubbery is completely overgrown, sidewalks are crumbling, and the magnolia trees at the entrances need to be replaced. It’s a mess.”
“The Thomas Jefferson statue is absurd,”said Philip and laughed nervously.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “It’s in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse,” I asked.
“The scale is all wrong,” Philip replied. “It’s way too small for the space. And the Eternal Flame Memorial, the statue of The Teacher, and other monuments are just scattered around. The park looks like a yard sale.”
“OK, I get it. The park needs an upgrade,” I said.
Temple cleared his throat, and said, “My dad worked with the Chamber of Commerce on the expansion of the airport and with your organization on Birmingham Green. The big project he wanted to do when he got sick was a fountain in Woodrow Wilson Park. On a trip to Europe, he saw a fountain in Geneva, Switzerland, and he made up his mind to put a fountain in our park. It was his dream.”
“Philip and I agreed to help Temple after his dad passed away. Philip did research for a series of articles for Southern Living on downtown parks in Charleston, Richmond, and other downtowns. I’ve done some rough schemes to replace the Jefferson statue with a fountain in scale with the park,“ said Nimrod.
“I understand,” I replied. “If you can lend your sketches, I’ll certainly pursue a fountain as the centerpiece of a renovated park. Do you have any rough cost estimates?”
“No, but it will be expensive,” said Nimrod.
“But it could be a major catalyst for revitalization of downtown as it has in other cities,” said Philip emphatically.
* * *
On my first day in the office, the Mayor Arrington’s top aide, Ed LaMonte, scheduled a meeting at 4 pm. He reviewed several of the mayor’s priorities for downtown. Ed listed parking decks, housing for the elderly, the civil rights museum, and several other projects, but renovation of Woodrow Wilson Park was not one of them.
I asked about a fountain and renovation of the park, shared Nimrod’s sketches, and Ed said, “That looks very expensive. I don’t think there’s any funding available for a project of that magnitude.”
I recounted Temple’s plea at our breakfast, and Ed paused and said, “His father’s death was a major loss. He was a leading member of the business community, but our resources are limited….”
“What should I tell Temple?”
“Just tell him you’ve made the Mayor aware of his interest, but don’t give him any false hope that there’s money for such a huge project. I’ll brief the Mayor.”
In the morning, I called Nimrod and said we needed a cost estimate, at least, a range of costs. I asked him to arrange a meeting with Philip and Temple at his office to discuss the scope of the project and the critical components beyond the fountain.
With a roll of drawings and a pile of photographs on the table, Nimrod, Philip and I sipped coffee until Temple arrived with Ralph Smith, a fresh-faced, young man wearing a bow tie. Temple sat at the head of the table and said, “Ralph is an attorney with Johnston, Barton and wants to help us with the fountain and the park. “My dad wasn’t the only man in town that cared about the park and downtown. A lot of people have told me they want to help. Ralph is forming a non-profit organization called “The Friends of the Park.”
I reported that the Mayor’s Office is open to the proposal, but concerned about the cost of such a big project that’s not in the five-year capital plan.
“Smitty tells me that the Friends of the Park could receive tax-deductible contributions. My family and some of my dad’s pals could pay for Nimrod to do drawings and get the ball rolling,” said Temple. “What kind of renovation costs are we looking at, Nimrod?”
“I have to tell you that there will be substantial costs if we’re going to do this right. The fountain pumps to recycle the water will be at least $400,000 and a pool and plaza will be another couple hundred thousand. The sidewalks and entryways will add up, too. Even the replacement of grass will be a significant budget item. The park is six acres. I think it will take a minimum of $1.6 – $2 million to do anything you would be proud of.”
“Hey, guys, we have to make this quality. It will be the centerpiece of our downtown for decades,” Temple said. “By the way, Smitty, who owns the park? The City? The Parks and Recreation Board?”
“The City government. The Park Board cuts the grass and empties trash cans.”
“The park was in the city’s original plan, but it was called Capitol Park. The founders set it aside for a new State capital,” said Philip with a grin that became a laugh. “After fifty years, it was unlikely that the capitol would be moved from Montgomery so it was named for President Wilson right after World War I.”
“Thank you for the history lesson, Philip,” said Temple wryly, “The City may own the park, but it’s the front yard for the County Courthouse. We need to give the County Commissioners an opportunity to show their civic pride and partner with the City of Birmingham in this important project. I’ll get a meeting with on of my Dad’s best friends, County Tax Collector O. Z. Hall.”
* * *
A week later, Temple, Nimrod, and I were ushered into the Tax Collector’s office overlooking the park. O. Z., which served as his first name, was a former Ford dealer who always enjoyed politics and ran for office successfully after retiring.
O. Z. greeted Temple warmly and glad-handed us with a ruddy face, bald scalp, thick glasses, and hearing aids on both ears. Just as we settled into chairs opposite his desk, O. Z’.s phone startled us with a loud ring. He grimaced, held up his index finger, picked up two receivers, put one at each ear, and shouted through a brief conversation.
When we left an hour later, he agreed to chair the Friends of the Park and help raise funds in the business community. He also said he thought Chris Doss and the other two County Commissioners would match the City’s funding for the park. Although our throats were raspy, we were delighted when we left the courthouse. As we walked through the park, we planned a meeting with the Mayor Arrington.
I called Ed LaMonte to update him on Temple’s campaign to build his dad’s fountain and requested a meeting. I suggested that the mayor might make the City’s commitment contingent upon matching funds from the county.
We met with Mayor Arrington and Ed in the Mayor’s Office with a view of the park and the Courthouse. The Mayor listened patiently as Temple spoke generally about the potential of the park as a catalyst for downtown and Nimrod outlined some key components and cited the cost. After a minute of silence, the mayor quietly said he would recommend that the City Council authorize $450,000 from a new bond issue provided the County provide an equal or greater amount.
“The County Commission is probably going to ask the City to do match their contribution. The mayor smiled and said, “Fine. Helps Chris with the other commissioners and it will help me with the City Council. One other condition is substantial support from the business community, especially the banks, utilities, law firms and others in downtown.”
Temple said, “We wouldn’t mind if you and Chris make your support dependent on matching private sector contributions.”
The mayor chuckled and replied, “You learn fast. Have you considered running for office?”
* * *
O. Z. made a series of phone calls in an afternoon to take the temperature of CEOs and corporate leaders. He assured us that the business community would step up for the park.
Temple invited us to the Birmingham Country Club to develop a schedule and strategy.
O.Z. asked if anyone objected to renaming the park fro Charles Linn, the retired ship captain and banker who led the young City of Birmingham through a cholera epidemic in the 1880s. I was puzzled, but Temple knew that many of Linn’s descendants would be pleased to commemorate their family member with contributions, especially with the name change. Philip noted that Woodrow Wilson never came to Birmingham. Everyone raised a glass to Charles Linn.
Philip recruited a graphic designer for a brochure and insisted on writing the copy himself. Nimrod developed schematic plans for the brochure and other “leave behind” materials. O. Z. adapted a pledge form from another fundraising campaign.
Councilwoman Miglianico objected to the canopy proposed over the outdoor dining tables, but accepted a pergola with vines that was virtually the same. Minority subcontractors were recruited for electrical and landscaping to satisfy the city’s requirements for minority participation. The Law Department assisted in arranging for the City funds to flow through the Friends of the Park so bidding would not be required and a quality general contractor could be assured.
One of the first fundraising calls was John Woods of AmSouth Bank. Temple, Philip and I joined him in his office. Part of the park was visible. After listening to O. Z.’s spiel which included several mentions of Temple’s dad, John said, “We’ll make a $75,000 gift from our foundation, but you know the city workers won’t maintain it. I predict that it’ll be a mess again in just a few years.”
Much to our surprise “You’re right, my friend,” replied O. Z. evenly. As I was searching for a suitable response, I heard O. Z. reaffirm John’s prediction again. Then he said, “And that’s why I’m asking for an additional $50,000 for our endowment fund for maintaining the park. The City will cut the grass, but we’ll keep the fountain working, make repairs, etc.”
“OK, you’ve got me—and you’ve got your money, O.Z.,” said John.
When we got to the sidewalk, we surrounded O.Z. and asked when he decided to create an endowment. He beamed and said, “I sold cars for thirty years, boys. I learned to listen to the customer.
In 1988, Linn Park was dedicated. The cost was $3.4 million and the City, County, and private sector all increased their contribution. The endowment invests in the park every year and has a more than $500,000 in Regions Bank, the successor to AmSouth.
Last year, I stood next to Temple when a statue of Charles Linn was unveiled in the park. I whispered to him that there should also be a statue of O.Z. Hall.