The Thomas Jefferson Hotel

The Thomas Jefferson Hotel is a 19-story building, formerly a 300-room hotel, completed in 1929 at 1631 2nd Avenue North on the western side of downtown Birmingham.

The hotel featured an ornate marble lobby, a large ballroom, and a rooftop mooring mast intended for use by dirigibles. The ground floor incorporated space for six shops and the basement included a billiard room and barbershop. The ballroom and dining rooms on the second floor opened out onto roof terraces from which the main tower rose. A Corinthian colonnade in glazed white terra-cotta set off the base of the tower, with the hotel entrance marked by a metal canopy. The fourth floor created an entablature, punctuated by the rhythm of windows that continued in brick for 13 more floors. The tower was capped on the top two floors with ornamented terra-cotta, including a balustrade and arched deep-set openings. The corners of the tower were clad in white brick to provide visual supports for the upper portion of the tower, while the narrow strips of brick between the windows were tan in color, each capped with a white acanthus leaf at the top. The edge of each corner was softened with a twisted-rope molding, rising to a sculpted satyr at the top. The cornice rests on tightly spaced brackets with a shallow overhang of red mission tile suggesting a sloped roof.

All rooms were air-conditioned and provided with a private bath, radio, television, and Muzak. The hotel operated a laundry and valet service and housed a coffee shop, lounge, pharmacy and barbershop. Nightly dinner dances were held in the Windsor Room. Other rooms available for events included the Terrace Ballroom, Jefferson Room, Green Room, Gold Room, Board Room, and Director’s Room.

In 1933, there was a $35,000 improvement project which removed the retail spaces and merged the empty space with the hotel, creating a larger hotel lobby with an electric fireplace. The dining room was expanded and a ballroom was constructed over part of the roof terrace. It was only the first of several renovations for numerous owners.

In 1966 the hotel underwent another major renovation, this time at the cost of $500,000. The hotel was modernized with the addition of new carpeting, ice machines, stainless steel kitchen equipment, and automatic elevators in anticipation of new business from the promised Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.

THE CABANA HOTEL

The 1970s marked a period of decline for the aging hotel. In 1972, the hotel’s proprietor traded the building to Ernest Woods in exchange for 3 acres of land on Red Mountain, who then sold the property to Travelodge franchisees, W. C. Maddox and Sam Raine. It was renamed the “Cabana Hotel” and a new neon sign was erected on the rooftop. The original ornate carpet was replaced with shag carpeting and dropped ceilings were added.

The economy slowed, and a shift in attention to the northern end of Birmingham left many older hotels, including the Cabana, struggling. This was not an uncommon scene nationwide, as corporate mergers and newer, more modern projects prompted the closing of many old buildings. In Birmingham, the Cabana was the last of the perennial hotels to fade away following the demise of the original Tutwiler Hotel in 1974 and the Bankhead Hotel conversion into senior housing. Its demise was also quickened by the opening of the BJCC complex to the north, taking all of its business to the Hyatt House Birmingham Hotel

Well past its prime, the hotel was bought by J. M. Glodt in the late 1970s. A large fire on November 26, 1980, broke on the ninth floor hallway, leaving many people trapped on the floors above because there was no fire escape. A smaller fire broke out on July 14, 1981, leaving some injured. These two events highlighted the building’s outdated safety systems. By 1981 it was functioning as a $200/month apartment building with fewer than 100 residents.

Facing citations under new fire, electrical and life safety codes, the Cabana Hotel was closed down on May 31, 1983. The deterioration of the interior was noted in 1987 when Sam Raine, Sammy, and Norman Ceravolo prepared for a court-ordered auction of the building and its contents. They won the auction and repurchased the note for an amount equal to the outstanding debt. Sam Raine operated a computer repair shop in the corner retail unit of the building until his death in December 2003.

LEER TOWER

In 2002, the property was listed for sale for $950,000. Architect Jeremy Erdreich estimated at the time that more than $20 million in repairs would be needed just to make it habitable.

In 2005, the Leer Corporation submitted a $20 million proposal to convert the building into upscale condominiums, to be known as Leer Tower. The new building plans included a rooftop swimming pool and four condominium units per floor. Leer Tower Birmingham, LLC executed a mortgage with Sammy and Norman Ceravalo to partially purchase the property, and took out a second mortgage with Antoinette Raine, widow of the late Sam Raine, to complete the purchase of the property. They installed a new “Leer Tower” sign on the rooftop, which was first illuminated on August 30, 2007.

The property went into foreclosure on June 27, 2008, on the second mortgage followed by foreclosure on the first mortgage on May 27, 2009, and the property reverted back to its original owners. The building left gutted by the Leer Corporation and without utility services, fell further into disrepair when an underground stream flooded the basement and vagrants began squatting on the upper floors.

Shortly after the first foreclosure, Watts Realty Co., Inc. was enlisted in selling the property. In an effort to allow the property to be utilized in ways that could further the preservation interest of the property, Watts Realty began allowing third-parties access into the abandoned building, which is also how I was able to gain access to it. On July 16, 2012, Watts Realty stopped allowing visitors into the building after someone BASE jumped off the roof the hotel, further securing the property to prevent access by unauthorized persons.

THOMAS JEFFERSON TOWER

In August 2013, the property was purchased for $1 million by TJTower LLC, headed by former basketball player Brian Beshara. His group’s plan included converting the upper floors into 96 apartment units and around 7,000 square feet of retail space and restaurants. The building plan also featured a main dining room and kitchen on the second floor that would utilize the terrace and historic dining room space. The projects also included event space and a small theater for residents. 

Construction began on February 12, 2015. The “Leer Tower” signage was removed and on August 6, 2016, the top portion of the rooftop mooring mast was replaced to return it to its original appearance. The building reopened in 2017 as Thomas Jefferson Tower.



Clayborn Temple and the Memphis Sanitation Strike

In 1888, the congregation of Second Presbyterian Church, decided to purchase a lot on the corner of Pontotoc and Hernando for the construction of their new building. Ground was broken for the construction on February 2, 1891, and the cornerstone of the church was laid on May 14. Sunday, January 1, 1893, the church held its dedication service. All the Presbyterian pastors of the city joined the congregation for the service.

This Romanesque Revival ecclesiastical architecture has cross gabled roofs, constructed of limestone blocks, rusticated externally with heavy timber framing members forming the roof trusses, nave ceiling with wood beams that are suspended from the roof trusses by 2 x 4 studs. It has several unique features, for instance the chancel is situated in the corner rather that the center of the sanctuary. When Second Presbyterian dedicated its new sanctuary in January 1, 1892, it was the largest church in America south of the Ohio River.

The congregation moved to East Memphis and sold the building to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1949. It was renamed Clayborn Temple, after AME Bishop Jim Clayborn.

Throughout the 1960s, Clayborn Temple served as the city’s staging ground for the civil rights movement, particularly the organizing headquarters of the Memphis Sanitation Strike. Memphis Labor Unions had tried for years to reform Memphis Public Works policies that included discrimination, unfair working conditions, and drastically insufficient wages.

On February 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death while riding in the back of a garbage truck when the hydraulic ram was set off, thought to have been caused by a shovel that was jarred loose and crossed some electrical wires.

1,300 sanitation workers went on strike on February 12, 1968 from the Memphis City Department of Public Works, citing years the recent work-related deaths of Cole and Walker and years of poor treatment, discrimination, dangerous working conditions. Everyday from then on, the strikers marched 1.3 miles from Clayborn Temple to City Hall, carrying signs which read “I AM A MAN”. The strikers received support from local organizations such as Mallory Knights, the Invaders, and Community On the Move for Equality (C.O.M.E.), which was a group of 150 local ministers led by Reverend James Lawson.

Clayborn Temple’s ministers gave support in however way they could. Rev. Ralph Jackson, the director of the AME Minimum Salary building next door to Clayborn, gave impassioned speeches to the supporters of the strike at Clayborn. Rev. Malcolm Blackburn was considered the movement most consistent white supporter, and opened Clayborn’s offices, classrooms, and sanctuary to host the strategy meetings and community gatherings throughout the strike.

In March 1968, Reverend Lawson and C.O.M.E. invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to shine a national spotlight on their efforts in the fight for economic justice. Dr. King arrived on March 18 and addressed a crowd of over 25,000 people, the largest indoor gathering of the civil rights movement. King pledged to return to Memphis on March 22, to lead a protest through the city.

Unfortunately, a snowstorm prevented King from reaching Memphis and causing the march to be postponed until the following week. King arrived late on March 28 to find a massive crowd of over 15,000 in chaos. Lawsen and King led the march together, down Beale Street to City Hall.

After marching only half a mile, the protest became violent when some of the youth began breaking windows. King called off the demonstration and was rushed back to his hotel. As looting and rioting quickly followed, Reverend Lawson urged the protesters to return to the church. Police reacted brutally to the riot, attacking both violent and peaceful marcher with tear gas and clubs. Police followed the crowd to the church, shooting tear gas canisters into the sanctuary and beating people as they lay on the floor to get fresh air.

Mayor Henry Loeb III declared martial law and brought in 4,000 heavily armed National Guard troops to quell any further unrest. At the end of the day, 280 people had been arrested during the riot, and 60 were reported injured. Stores in the black section of town were looted and burned. The only fatality of the day was 16-year-old Larry Payne, who was shot in the stomach with a shotgun by a police officer after being suspected of looting. Despite police pressure to have a private closed-casket funeral in their home, the family held the funeral at Clayborn Temple on April 2nd, and had an open casket.

King considered not returning to Memphis, having been unaware of the division within the community, particularly of a black youth group known as the Invaders who were accused of starting the violence. He finally decided that if the nonviolent struggle for economic justice was going to succeed it would be necessary to follow through with the movement there.

King returned on April 3rd and spoke to a group of dedicated sanitation workers, delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address. The following evening on April 4, 1968, King was shot by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Mayor Loeb would not concede to the union’s demands. It wasn’t until President Lyndon B. Johnson charged his Undersecretary of Labor, James Reynolds, with negotiating a solution and ending the strike. Negotiators finally reached a deal on April 16th, allowing the City Council to recognize the union and guaranteeing a better wage, bringing the strike to an end.

In 1979, Clayborn Temple was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The AME congregation continued to worship in Clayborn its closure in 1999 due to the congregants, similar to Second Presbyterian before it, moving away from downtown.

The church sat abandoned for years until October 2015, when a group known as Nonprofit Neighborhood Preservation Inc. purchased the building to return the church to religious, educational and community uses. Services and events are currently held there, but the group plans to have restoration completed by April 2018, in time for the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. You can visit their website at www.clayborn-temple.org.


The Variety Theatre, the Lady on Lorain

Opened on November 24, 1927, the Variety Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio was built by Sam Stecker, Meyer Fine and Abe Kramer of the Variety Amusement Company. It was designed in the Spanish Gothic by Cleveland-based architect Nicola Petti, who also designed the Cedar Lee Theatre.

The theatre was sold to Warner Brothers in 1929 who ran it until 1954. It was then run by the Community Circuit Theaters Co. until 1976 when it was purchased by Russell Koz. Koz ran the theater as a second-run movie theater until the early-1980s when it was used as a music venue, primarily rock bands.

Many known bands played there while it’s short stint as a music venue including Metallica, the Dead Kennedys, Slayer, R.E.M., and Motörhead. During Motörhead’s show on December 2, 1984 the music was so loud, it cracked the ceiling and plaster rained down onto the crowd. The last song played was the Hawkwind cover of “Motorhead” before the power was cut, ending the show. In 1986, an article was published in an issue of Spin magazine entitled “Motörhead is the Loudest Band on Earth”, claiming that the band reached a reported decibel level of 130.

That marked the beginning of the end for the theater as a judge ordered its closure in 1986 due to multiple complaints from the neighborhood. It was last used as a wrestling gym called the Cleveland Wrestleplex before closing for the last time in the late-1980s.

Since 2006, the Friends of the Historic Variety Theatre have been in the process of restoring and renovating the theater.

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