Alabama Road Trip No. 6
Birmingham: Taking it to the Streets, Downtown
by Grey Brennan
Get ready to travel to Birmingham, Alabama's largest city, for a stroll through historic downtown. On this walking tour, you will go to the place where hot peanuts have been sold for more than 100 years and stroll through shops filled with memories. You will also visit important civil rights sites such as Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the park that was the staging ground for protest marches during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. You will stand at the very spot where buildings were constructed on each corner of the street that were so tall for their day they were called skyscrapers and the location became known as the "Heaviest Corner on Earth."
Where To Stay
Once you arrive in Birmingham, check into any of the wonderful downtown hotels such as the historic Tutwiler (2021 Park Pl.; 205-322-2100), Birmingham's oldest hotel, or the Redmont (2101 Fifth Ave. N.; 205-324-2101), Birmingham's oldest continually operating hotel and where Hank Williams' last night in Alabama was spent in room 907 before his death in West Virginia on January 1, 1953.
This is an approximate three-mile daytime walk and a one- or two- day experience depending on the time you spend at each stop. Only major restaurants and nightlife establishments are open after 5 p.m.
Discover Birmingham's Oldest Churches
The Tutwiler and Redmont are located a block apart, close enough that in many of the rooms you can look out your window and see the other hotel. From either of these historic hotels, walk south on Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard North., where you will quickly come to First Presbyterian Church (2100 4th Ave. N.; 205-322-5469). Turn left and walk east on 4th Avenue to go past the front of the church.
First Presbyterian is one of Birmingham's first churches, dating to 1872. The present red brick, Victorian Gothic-style church building was built in 1888 with other enhancements being added through the years. Twenty-five bells manufactured in England were placed in the bell tower in 1924.
Known for its many elegant stained glass windows, The Cathedral of St. Paul, completed in 1893, has been called "the most highly developed Victorian Gothic structure in the South."
Continue east on 4th Avenue North to the corner of 22nd Street North, turn right and walk one short block to 3rd Avenue North and turn right. By now you should have noticed another one of Birmingham's first churches, The Cathedral of St. Paul (2120 3rd Ave. N.; 205-251-1279). Known for its many elegant stained glass windows, The Cathedral of St. Paul, completed in 1893, has been called "the most highly developed Victorian Gothic structure in the South."
Enjoy Unusual Shopping
From The Cathedral of St. Paul, continue walking west on 3rd Avenue North to find some unusual stores in the middle of the next block between Richard Arrington Boulevard North and 20th Street North.
Walking in this direction, you may first notice the old Goodyear Shoe Hospital sign hanging outside that establishment (2016 3rd Ave. N.; 205-252-7346). Walk inside and ask for Rhonda Patton. She can tell you a lot about Birmingham and repair your shoes at the same time.
Across the street is Alabama's first fair trade store, Sojourns (2017 3rd Ave. N.; 205-323-5680). This store is filled with items from artists around the world and a pledge that they receive a living wage for their work. Meet owner Melissa Kendrick inside.
Jim Reed Books and the Museum of Fond Memories
At Jim Reed Books and the Museum of Fond Memories (2021 3rd Ave. N.; 205-326-4460), you will find owner Jim Reed among the rows of collectible items. Rare books, movie posters, old newspapers and an assortment of other items fill the store. There are almost 50,000 items inventoried here with another 250,000 not cataloged, which makes browsing through the aisles easily a one-hour stay.
Until the items are sold, the storefront windows display an original telephone switchboard, the exact model used by Lily Tomlin as she gave her famous line "one ringy-dingy" on the TV show "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In"; a large Piggly Wiggly grocery store costume head; and a one-leg lamp like the one in the movie A Christmas Story.
Take the time to ask Reed if you can hold one of his sheepskin leather-bound books dating back 400 years. Just the feel of holding a book that was around when your ancestors were alive will take you back in time long before iPads and Kindles, when owning books was a sign of wealth.
Check out the Loft District
Walk back north to the corner of 3rd Avenue and Richard Arrington Boulevard, turn right and then turn left at the next block. Walk east on 2nd Avenue for several blocks to another store, What's On 2nd (2706 2nd Ave. N.; 205-322-2688). While Reed Books and the Museum of Fond Memories is more of a paper-based collectible store, What's On 2nd contains more quirky collectibles and random treasures.
What's On 2nd is in the Loft District of historic downtown Birmingham where you will also find restaurants, nightlife and a small grocery. Rogue Tavern (2312 2nd Ave. N.; 205-202-4151), Urban Standard (2320 2nd Ave. N.; 205-250-8200) and Pale Eddie's Pour House (2308 2nd Ave. N.; 205-297-0052) are on the same side of the block on 2nd Avenue. Across the street is Mamanoes Grocery (2301B 2nd Ave. N.; 205-307-6001) offering fresh bread, fruits and a wine tasting room.
Stroll Down Cobblestoned Morris Avenue
From What's On 2nd, walk back west to 23rd Street North and turn left. You will walk past 1st Avenue North and then down a slight hill to Morris Avenue. Turn right and walk down Morris Avenue, where the lampposts on the one-way cobblestone street place you in a different time and place. Continue west on Morris Avenue and just before you reach 20th Street, you will start to smell the aroma from the Peanut Depot (2016 Morris Ave.; 205-251-3314), where they have been roasting peanuts for more than 100 years using antique roasters and their time-honored method of not adding oils or preservatives.
Visit the "Heaviest Corner on Earth" and McWane Science Center
Continue from the Peanut Depot on Morris Avenue to 20th Street and turn right. At the next corner, 20th Street and 1st Avenue North, look around and you will see four buildings that were finished within a few years of each other: the Woodward Building (1902), Brown Marx Building (1906), Empire Building (1909) and the American Trust and Savings Bank Building (1912). At the time, the height and mass of the buildings were so impressive that the intersection of 1st Avenue North and 20th Street was proclaimed the "Heaviest Corner on Earth." To experience what life must have been like when the skyscrapers were built, eat in the fine dining Café DuPont on 20th Street North near the corner (113 20th St. N.; 205-322-1282).
The only way to photograph all four buildings in one shot is to stand on one of the corners and point your camera directly skyward. If your camera has a wide frame of view, you should be able to at least get the tops of what were once the skyscrapers of their day.
From 20th and 1st Avenue, walk north up 20th Street to 3rd Avenue and turn left. You will pass Speakeasy (1920 3rd Ave. N.; 205-251-1506), a nightlife establishment. When you reach 19th Street and 3rd Avenue North, you will see the McWane Science Center (200 19th St. N.; 205-714-8300), located in the former Loveman's department store.
Check Out the Theatre District
Continue west on 3rd Avenue and you will see a large Alabama sign. You are now in the Theatre District of Birmingham. The historic Alabama Theatre (1817 3rd Ave. N.; 205-252-2262) has been beautifully restored, so be sure to check the marquee to see if a performance is scheduled during your stay. Across the street is the Lyric Hot Dog & Grill (1808 3rd Ave. N.; 205-251-9952), which opened in 1957 and has décor similar to an old department store lunch counter. Nearby is the Lyric Theatre on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 18th Street that has not yet been restored. The Red Mountain Theatre Company (301 19th St.; 205-324-2424), with its Cabaret Theatre located in the bottom floor of the historic Kress Building, is nearby if you wish to attend a performance.
Explore Historic 4th Avenue and the Civil Rights District
Walk north on 18th Street for one block and then turn left at 4th Avenue North and walk into Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park. It will be easy to find because you will hear Temptations music playing. Kendrick, who was born in Birmingham in 1937, added an "s" as his stage name and was a lead singer for The Temptations.
You are now in the 4th Avenue North Historic District, a place that was once the black business district. At the next corner, walk inside the visitor's center at the Urban Impact non-profit agency (319 17th St. N.; 205-328-1850). They will be happy to provide you with the history of the district. Be sure to inquire about the one-hour tour of the area.
Across the street is the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame (1631 4th Ave. N.; 205-254-2731). This art-deco museum honors great jazz artists such as Nat "King" Cole, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Erskine Hawkins. Be sure to go upstairs and look through the window facing the Masonic Temple building where great jazz performers once played. From the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame walk cross the street to read the historic sign at the northeast corner of 17th Street North and 4th Avenue North.
Next walk one block north on 17th Street and enter Kelly Ingram Park at the corner of 17th Street North and 5th Avenue North where you will see a limestone sculpture depicting three ministers – John Thomas Porter, Nelson H. Smith and A.D. King, kneeling in prayer. You are now in the heart of Birmingham's Civil Rights District.
The four-acre park you are now walking in was the staging ground for large-scale demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. Bronze statues depict the historic events.
Be sure to call ahead to the key destinations you plan to check out to make sure they will be open during the time of your visit.
At the opposite corner of the park, you will find a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. facing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (1530 6th Ave. N.; 205-251-9402), where four young girls died from a Ku Klux Klan bombing. Walk inside the church and ask when the next tour starts. There are no tours on Sunday, but the congregation welcomes you to worship with them.
Across the street is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th St. N.; 205-328-9696). Go inside to see the cell where Dr. King was imprisoned when he wrote "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," part of the museum's Civil Rights Movement experience.
From this area, walk three blocks east on 6th Avenue North to the corner of 19th Street North. Here, you will pass by another of Birmingham's historic churches, First Church (518 19th St. N.; 205-254-3186), founded in 1872.
Walk Around Linn Park
At the corner of 19th Street and 6th Avenue North, turn left and walk the short block to Park Place. Walk east on Park Place where you will quickly see Linn Park. Walk diagonally through the park to the Birmingham Museum of Art (2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd.; 205-254-2565). Considered one of the finest regional museums in the United States, you can spend half a day touring. If you have only one hour to visit, the museum has a list of the top 12 works of art that are a must-see.
From the Museum of Art, walk back through Linn Park, this time along the east side. There are many statues in the park, but along this route you will find a miniature Statue of Liberty, a statue of Thomas Jefferson and a marble statue honoring teacher Mary Cahalan just outside the entrance to the Linn-Henley Research Library.
Built in 1927, the Linn-Henley Research Library building itself is a work of art, but be sure and see the large mural paintings on canvasses hung high inside and notice the library's beautiful ceilings.
In case you need to rest from your walking tour, the Tutwiler Hotel is directly across the street and the Redmont is one block way, south on Richard Arrington Jr., Blvd North.
The Blue Line Dart Trolley runs north and south on 20th Street downtown with a turnaround at Cobb Lane on the south end and the Birmingham Civic Center on the north end. The cost is only a quarter. There are also two other trolley circle routes, a red and green line, that operate in downtown Birmingham. Go to the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau for complete tourist information (2200 9th Ave. N.; 205-458-8000).
The Birmingham Parking Authority (205-254-2330) operates 10 parking garages downtown and two surface lots. There is also metered street parking.
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