Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Ghosts of Restaurants Past


A neon relic remains from a once-iconic Birmingham restaurant.

We're just hours away from the beginning of Birmingham Restaurant Week 2013, the perfect way to celebrate how good we have it in this city when it comes to eating out. But before you go out and appreciate our current, nationally renowned culinary scene, let's take a quick trip back into the city's dining history.

Birmingham began to boom in the 1880s, starting the decade with 3,086 people and ending it with 26,178. And it seems that all the newcomers brought their appetites. The 1883-84 city directory, printed just 12 years after the city sprouted in a cornfield, lists 13 restaurants. Several were bakeries and coffeehouses that doubled as restaurants, including Rowlett's Vienna Bakery and J.V. Gasser's Bakery, Confectionery, and Restaurant, whose ad implored potential diners to "Eat, Laugh, and Grow Fat" and promoted the availability of ice cream. Meanwhile, the Delmonico restaurant offered "Tables supplied with every delicacy of the season, and prepared in the highest style of culinary art"--a claim familiar to Birmingham's current crop of farm-to-table restaurants. The headline of Delmonico's directory ad declared, "We Never Sleep!"--perhaps an early attempt at 24-hour service.

As Birmingham grew, lunch counters and cook shops filled the city to serve hungry workers with fast and cheap food. Greek immigrants began to open and operate many of these types of restaurants, from hot dog and barbecue stands to meat-and-threes, in the early part of the 20th century. As the city's fortunes rose, Greek owners responded with more upscale restaurants. Over time, many of their establishments became civic icons. In each case, the Greeks combined Old Country flavors with traditional Southern cooking, creating a cuisine for a New South city. (We have the Greeks to thank for Birmingham's unique take on the hot dog, for example.)

The chefs and diners of the past would be astounded at the variety and creativity we now enjoy in Birmingham's restaurants, but they helped to pave the way for it. Each of them added something special to the flavor of our city--something we can still taste today.

Now, let's eat!

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Saturday, August 03, 2013

Sign Up

BarbersPhoto-webNow that the Penny dog food sign has found a new home at Regions Field, I'm hoping that we'll one day see the return of other iconic Birmingham advertising signs.

The Barber's clock really needs to come back from the warehouse where it currently sits in storage. For about 50 years, it lit up the night sky over Five Points South in a dazzling display of neon."Barber's" would flash in a dot pattern made of light bulbs while a neon "best!" alternated with "MILK" and "ICE CREAM." You could see it all the way down 20th Street. The sign was taken down in 2004 for roof repairs, and a group of people made some moves to restore it, but it has stayed in storage since then. (See a better photo here.)

SparklingRefreshment-FlickrThe Barber's clock actually reused the metal framework of an earlier sign that may have been even more eye-grabbing. Buffalo Rock's sign featured electric lights that gave the illusion of a bottle pouring ginger ale into a glass. I based my block print on an archival photo of the sign. According to Bhamwiki, the Buffalo Rock sign at Five Points replaced a four-story-high version that had stood at the drink-maker's headquarters in downtown Birmingham. Four stories high! Can you imagine what that looked like at night?

Sputnik-webI know of one other landmark Birmingham sign sitting in a warehouse. The colorful neon sputnik that flashed above the 48-lane bowling alley at Eastwood Mall likely appeared around 1960, when the shopping complex--the first of its kind in the South--was built. The alley and mall had closed by the early 2000s, but a fan of the sputnik saved it before all the buildings were torn down a few years later to make way for the Walmart shopping center that now stands on the site.

I'm not sure what Alabama Power plans to do with the old steam plant and other properties between Railroad Park and 20th Street that it now owns, but any one of these advertising signs--restored and relit--would be a great addition. Imagine one--or more--of them atop the steam plant, adding a zip of energy to the area at night and reconnecting us to one more unique, beloved piece of Birmingham's history.

PennyOriginal-webSpeaking of Penny, check out the sign's original incarnation circa 2004--and compare it to the restored version happily trying to catch homers at Regions Field.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Curious Ad

Cardui-WebOnce I saw the floating question mark next to the Mountain Dew and Pepsi logos, I had to know more about this wall. It's on the back of a building on the corner of 6th Avenue South and 27th Street South.

As you can see from the photo, there is an older fading ad here. It promotes Cardui, "The Woman's Tonic," a medicine for pain and "weakness"—in other words, menstrual cramps. The question mark comes from the probing, attention-grabbing headline that headlined most of Cardui's wall ads throughout many states: "Are You a Woman?" (now hidden under the soda ads).

The product was introduced around 1880 as "Dr. McElree's Wine of Cardui" by the Chattanooga Medicine Company. Through rumored to originate in a Cherokee recipe, Cardui included 19 percent alcohol. It's no wonder so many of Cardui's newspaper ads reprinted testimonials from delighted customers! One ad, from 1912, also noted that women "are subject to a large number of troubles and irregularities, peculiar to women, which, in time, often lead to more serious trouble." Cardui, it continued, "is needed to help you over the hard places, to relieve weakness, headache, and other unnecessary pains, the signs of weak nerves and over-work." Another ad claimed that Cardi acts "gently, yet surely, on the weakened womanly organs."

The 1912 ad used "Are You a Woman?"—which means that the Birmingham wall ad probably was originally painted around that time. According to fire insurance maps, this two-story building appeared on its corner by 1911; early on, it housed the East End Drug Company--a pharmacy that likely sold Cardui to women living in the surrounding residential neighborhood. The drugstore had morphed into a grocery by 1925, and over the decades, the space hosted a restaurant, tire company, upholsterer, and hardware seller.

Other faded signs on the 6th Avenue side of the building point to an automotive connection—perhaps from when Southern Rubber Company was located here in the 1940s, or from Automotive Industrial Supply, which moved in by 1963. The soda signs date from sometime after the mid-1970s, when Mountain Dew introduced this version of its logo. Currently, the building houses offices for a mental health services organization.
The Chattanooga Medicine Company still exists, under the name Chattem. It has a stable of well-known brands including Gold Bond, Coritzone-10, Icy Hot, Allegra, ACT, Selsun Blue, and Unisom. Cardui, however, disappeared from store shelves around the middle of the 20th century.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

High Fade

FirstNatlBankGhostSignNot long ago, I was driving through downtown Birmingham and caught a quick glimpse of the letter "F" atop one of the buildings. I finally got a chance to take another look, and lo and behold, a "new" ghost sign is emerging. Take a close look at the photo, at the top left corner of the building, and you'll see the faint outline of the word "First"—for First National Bank of Birmingham, which once had its headquarters in the Frank Nelson Building on the corner of 20th Street and 3rd Avenue North. (This sign is visible from 20th Street, facing the north side of the building.) According to Bhamwiki, First National Bank occupied this building from 1903 to 1940, meaning the sign dates from some point between those years. The bank, which could trace its lineage to 1872, when Charles Linn founded the city's first bank, went on to become AmSouth, now merged with Regions.

The sign probably featured white letters on a black background, which is reappearing from beneath the beige topcoat. Or else that wall was really dirty and sooty when it was repainted!

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Music Notation

CharlemagneCheck this out. Renovations to the Five Points South building housing the legendary Charlemagne Record Exchange have revealed the shop's original hand-painted sign. It looks like it dates from Charlemagne's early days in the neighborhood, in the late '70s/early '80s, and has been hiding under an awning for decades. I'm not sure if the renovation plans call for a new awning, so be sure to stop by and see this small handmade wonder while you can.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Two Less


Photo courtesy of John Morse

Birmingham said goodbye to a pair of ghost signs this past week. The Grayson Rose Transmission signs on 6th Avenue South, with their cheerful "Friendly Grayson" mascot, vanished under a new coat of paint. The building is now part of Iron City, a new performance space (supposed to be amazing inside), which is preparing to open.

People often ask me how I feel when signs disappear in this manner. I bear no ill will toward a property owner who paints over an old sign; after all, the painted ads were never intended to last forever, and cities do change over time. However, it is sad to see a bit of color, character, and history--a little piece of Birmingham uniqueness--be replaced with a blank wall. In this case, Iron City could have used the still-vibrant Grayson Rose ads as a landmark to direct people to its doors. They certainly were worth keeping as a cool nod to the building's history. Definitely a missed opportunity.

The good news is that the signs aren't entirely gone. Ironically, the new coat of paint that hides the ads will help to preserve them by protecting them from the sun and weather. In a few decades, as the top coat fades, we'll see Friendly Grayson smile again.

I first saw these signs during a 5K race, of all things, in 2010. The sight of the colorful mascot, which had recently reappeared when siding was removed from the building, nearly stopped me in my tracks. You can learn more about the history of the Grayson Rose Transmission ads and their location in Birmingham's Automotive District in my book.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

A New Page

CharlesBookMy book arrived last week, and it was a surreal to flip through it for the first time. It had seemed something of an abstract notion while I was researching and writing it, so it was exciting to finally see it in a tangible form. Putting it on a shelf alongside other Birmingham history books was another happy moment. I'm thrilled with how it turned out.

I can't wait for all of you to see it and interact with it and learn more about the fading ads and Birmingham's history. Let me know what you think, and please send in any questions. I'll try to answer them here on the blog. I also plan to feature some local ghost signs that didn't make it into the book. So come back soon!

Photo by Carrie Beth Buchanan

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