At 10:30 AM, I sadly bid Chattanooga good bye, and headed south on Highway 59 toward New Orleans. While I hoped to make New Orleans today, I also told myself that I was not allowed to repeat the mistake of Wednesday and overdo it. Should I tire, I was required to stop and spend the night. Sadly, there were many things in Chattanooga which I still hadn’t seen. During my drive, I called my friend, “G,” who is originally from New Orleans to tell her about my trip.
“Did you see Rock City?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. She then went on to explain that Rock City’s marketing department, some time in the 1950’s, had cleverly agreed to paint farmers’ barns in exchange for being allowed to paint, “See Rock City” on the sides of the barns. Apparently these barns were along highways all through the South, and at the age of 7 or 8, “G” pestered her parents to go see Rock City until they relented. Apparently, it’s still there, right next to Lookout Mountain. But the Rock City-painted barns are no more. And that served as a poignant reminder of how little I had really seen of Chattanooga. In fact, I had barely scratched the surface, something which I worry is to become a theme of this trip. Because even if you have a couple of months to cover the area between Boston and Mérida by car, it’s a LOT of territory to cover. But whatever I see, I intend to enjoy it to the fullest.
When I crossed the state line into Alabama, I stopped at a rest stop to check out the maps, and stretch my legs a bit. When I got to the visitor welcome center, a sign on the door made me laugh out loud.
Perhaps it just confirmed my Yankee stereotypes of the rural South, but I couldn’t help laughing. And just as quickly, I hoped that no one had heard me laugh. Fortunately, there was no gunfire at the rest stop, and I continued on my way.
Between Chattanooga and New Orleans lies Birmingham, Alabama, a place chock-full of history. I had been there once before on business during the late 90’s, but my meetings were in a suburb. My visit took place during the fall, the leaves were turning, and the city just charmed me. And at nearly the exact midpoint of my journey, it seemed like a logical place to stop. And when I arrived, it seemed perfect, so I stopped into downtown to have a look around.
As you may be beginning to suspect, I’m a sucker for old downtowns, charming 19th century and early 20th century buildings, and old-fashioned places. Perhaps it’s no coincidence I live in Boston, as opposed to some place like Orlando. Initially I overshot the downtown, but this turned out to be fortuitous, as I was able to snap a photo of an old steel mill. Steel was Birmingham’s foundation, and big wealth generator for its first hundred years. It would have been wrong to write a post on Birmingham without at least a quick mention of steel.
After I turned around and went back to downtown, my first experience was immediately positive. In downtown Birmingham, you can park for an entire hour for a mere quarter. In Boston, that’ll buy you about fifteen minutes. For an old building aficionado, Birmingham is a place to see. Sadly, many of the buildings are empty or decrepit, but there are plenty of beauties around.
First up we have the Alabama Theater. According to Wikipedia, The Alabama Theatre is a movie palace built in 1927 by Paramount’s Publix Theatre chain as its flagship theater for the southeastern region of the United States. Seating 2,500 people at the time, it was the largest in the Birmingham Theatre district. It’s a very handsome building. Unfortunately, I did not see the inside.
Next we have the The Steiner Building, a four-story office building, which was constructed in 1890, and boasted the first hydraulically operated elevator in the state.
Finally, we have The Empire Building, a 16-story, 247-foot-tall classical revival style skyscraper, built in 1909 on the former site of the Bank Saloon, which was closed during Birmingham’s first prohibition in 1908. The facade is constructed of glazed, molded terracotta, which has held up extraordinarily well with fine details still evident. When The Empire Building was built, it was the tallest building in Alabama. Within four years that honor was passed to the American Trust and Savings Bank Building on the opposite corner, creating what became known as the Heaviest Corner on Earth.
Though I could have easily spent all day wandering around downtown Birmingham, my parking meter was literally ticking, and after an hour I figured I’d better get back on the road again to New Orleans.
After the walk, and a few back stretches, I felt refreshed and ready to drive. In seemingly no time, I was crossing Lake Ponchartrain and arrived at the Crescent City, which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post. Saludos for now.