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Thomas Jefferson Hotel

Typical Floorplan for the 4th - 19th Floors
Typical Floorplan for the 4th - 19th Floors
At 287 feet and 19 stories, the Thomas Jefferson Hotel represents a long-lost era of grand hotels. Located at 1631 Second Avenue North, it quietly sits on downtown Birmingham's west end remind us of the past that once was.

Planning and Construction



In November 1925, the Union Realty Company released plans for the Thomas Jefferson at an initial estimated cost of $1.5 million. David O. Whilldin, a well-known local architect was appointed as the head architect for the project. Construction begin in May 1926 and was halted in April 1927 when one of the chief financiers behind the project failed. Worked resumed in July 1928 when a new hold company was opened. The hotel opened on September 7th, 1929 behind schedule and one-million dollars over budget. During its opening week, the hotel featured nightly banquets showcasing an orchestra from New York.

The hotel featured an ornate lobby, clad with marble, and a grand dining room. A mooring mast was installed on the rooftop and intended for dirigibles although it would never be used. The ground floor featured six shops with a billiard room and barber shop located in the basement. On the second floor, the dining room opened to rooftop terraces. On its opening night, the hotel had over 7,000 pieces of silverware, 5,000 glasses and 4,000 sets of linens. One early newspaper ad event claimed the hotel was "Southern charm and hospitality at its happy best, wonderful best. That's the pride of Birmingham - The Thomas Jefferson". The hotel was supervised by a tight and "snobby" manager and his wife who ran it as a showplace of unparalleled amenities.

The exterior of the hotel is best known for its Renaissance Revival architecture. The base of the hotel is set by Corinthian colonnades encrusted with white terra-cotta. An entablature begins on the fourth floor and then continues in brick for the next 13 floors. Where the last two floors are encased with an ornamental terra-cotta including the use a balustrade on the last floor. The corners of the hotel are clad in white brick rising to the top where a sculpted satyr sits upon twisted rope molding. Further along the facade, each window is separated by a white acanthus leaf encased in tan bricks.

Thomas Jefferson Hotel in 1949
Thomas Jefferson Hotel in 1949

The Golden Years



In 1933 the first renovation took place at a cost of $35,000. Retail space along the ground floor were moved and merged into the hotel lobby, creating a larger space that included a new electric fireplace. The north-end of the terrace on the second floor was enclosed, creating a ballroom.

The second floor now featured the Terrace Ballroom and the Windsor, Jefferson, Green, Gold, Board, and Director's Room. The hotel operated a laundry and valet service for its guests. Each room came with air condition and featured its own private bath, radio and television. Throughout its time, many celebrities paid a visit to the hotel. Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, George Burns, Jerry Lew Lewis, Pete Rose, Ray Charles, and Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover all spent nights in the hotel. The hotel also featured suites for legendary Alabama Head Football Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and Governor George Wallace for when they were in Birmingham.

In 1966 the hotel once again underwent a renovation to the tune of $500,000. The building was modernized with automatic elevators, ice markers, stainless steel kitchen equipment and new carpeting. In addition, WATV-AM moved their production studios and broadcasted from the inside the hotel.

Decline of an Era



In 1972, the proprietor sold the hotel to Ernest Woods who then promptly sold it to Travelodge franchisees W.C. Maddox and Sam Raine. The hotel was renamed to the Cabana Hotel in 1972. Throughout the 1970's luxury hotels would see a sharp decline and the Thomas Jefferson was not an exception to that. During this time the original ornate carpet was replaced with shag carpet to keep up with "modern trends". During this decade, downtown Birmingham also saw a shift as new growth and development began on the north side of downtown. This left the aging hotel by itself as by the late 1970's two other notable hotels in downtown Birmingham closed. After the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex the growth on downtown's south side all but ceased.

The building would once again change hands with J.M. Glodt purchasing the hotel in the late 1970's. This is when it appears that the hotel finally lost its luster. In November 1980, a fire broke out and destroyed the ninth-floor hallway. Although no was injured, people were left trapped on the upper floors as the building did not a fire escape. Nine months later another fire destroyed a portion of the 14th floor, this time resulting in injuries. In 1981 the hotel was now a second rate $200 a month apartment building, with fewer than 100 residents.

Closure and Proposals



In light that J.M. Glodt was operating the building as a residential complex even though he did not have the proper licensure to do so; on May 31st 1983 the Thomas Jefferson would be permanently closed after failing to meet fire codes and health department regulations. To bring the building back to code, the plumbing would need to be re-worked and sufficient lighting and smoke detectors needed to be added.

In 1987 Sam Raine, and Sammy and Norman Ceravolo purchased the hotel at an auction and gained ownership. Sam would operate a computer repair shop on the ground floor until his death in 2003. The Leer Corporation from Modesto, CA submitted a twenty-million dollar proposal in 2005 to convert the building into upscale condominiums. Plans called to have a rooftop swimming pool with four condominiums per floor. In January 2006, Leer Tower Birmingham, LLC. executed a mortgage with the Ceravolo brothers and estate of the late Sam Raine. The Leer Corporation could not secure local financing and the property went into foreclosure by June 2008. The Thomas Jefferson fell into further disrepair as vagrants squatted in the upper floors and the basement became flooded by a rumored underground stream.

Current State



During my many visits to the Thomas Jefferson from 2010 to 2012, the hotel was enlisted by the owners to Watts Realty and during the summer of 2012 it was under contract by an out-of-state investment group.

Update:

In August 2013, it was announced that TJTower, LLC. purchased the hotel from Watts Realty. Plans called for turning the upper floors into 100 upscale apartments and the ground floor would a mixed use of restaurant and retail space. Furthermore, plans called to restore the dirigible mooring mast to its original condition and turned into a landmark beacon. I visited the Thomas Jefferson in Spring 2018; the renovation work had been completed and the hotel had been turned back into its original glory.

I would like to personally thank Chip Watts of Watts Realty for allowing me 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.

Photo Gallery




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References



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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