BIRMINGHAM'S OFFBEAT PLACES PLEASE ADVENTUROUS TOURISTS
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Dilcy Windham Hilley
Vice President Marketing/Communications
Birmingham, Ala----Somewhere in the brain there must be a pleasure center that’s stimulated by the slightly eccentric, the somewhat offbeat, the more than regular. Scientists probably have a name for it. So while the Birmingham area has its share of scenic beauty, fascinating attractions and white tablecloth dining, some city experiences go beyond guidebook fare.
These are places that most tourists just don’t happen upon. Some are memorably unusual. Some are downright strange. Birmingham is full of them, and adventurous tourists should extend their itineraries in Birmingham to explore these out-of-the-ordinary, very-Birmingham places. Here are ten:
1. First and Second Avenue
Birmingham’s city center has its own shopping character, created by wonderful “real” shopping experiences such as those found along downtown’s First Avenue North. BB’s China & Glassware offers an enticing assortment of dishes and glassware, some bearing the logos of now-defunct hotels and dining rooms, along with seconds and Fiestaware, all at amazing discounts. Second Avenue North is teaming with good restaurants, watering holes and small shops. Downtown is also home to a couple of the best retro and collectible shops in the region. Check out What’s on Second (2306 2nd Avenue North) and Reed Books (2010 3rd Avenue North).
2. Miss Liberty
For more than 30 years, Birmingham’s statue of Miss Liberty graced the roof of the Liberty National building downtown. More than two decades ago, she was lifted down by crane, carefully restored and now enjoys a new permanent home in the tony Liberty Park area of the city.
Her creation came about in 1952 when the president of Liberty National Life Insurance Company decided the organization needed a statue to represent its corporate logo. The sculpted replica was finished four years later. At 31 feet high and weighing ten tons, one-fifth the size of the original, Miss Liberty is a big girl. She was so big, in fact, that no U.S. foundry could cast the statue at a price the company could afford. Company officials finally sought out a foundry in France that had cast the only other large replica of the statue.
3. The Temple of Sibyl
Situated majestically at the intersection of Highway 31 and Shades Crest Road, this Greek reproduction gives no hint of its weird history. In 1924, George Ward, a former mayor of Birmingham with a keen interest in Greek and Roman history, vacationed in Rome. So intrigued was he by the Temple of the Vestal Virgins that he vowed to return to Birmingham and build a home modeled after the edifice. He called his house Vesta Via, meaning “home by the road,” and the Birmingham suburb where his home once stood retains the name Vestavia.
Up that road traveled many of Ward’s friends who came for Greek-style parties. Historical recollections of those gatherings say the partygoers dressed in togas. Sandal-footed and wreath-crowned, they roamed the grounds of Ward’s elegant estate, along with a bevy of his hound dogs that bore names such as Zeus and Aphrodite. Later Ward added a summerhouse at the entrance of the estate. The gazebo was called the Temple of Sibyl.
After Ward’s death, his grand estate fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1971. But four years later, the Temple of Sibyl was moved to its present location atop the mountain. From this scenic vantage point, tourists enjoy a sweeping view of the surrounding area. Some visitors say they can almost see chariots in the valley below.
4. Krispy Kreme Doughnuts The glowing HOT DOUGHNUTS NOW sign no doubt means it’s time to buy lots of the freshest, lightest, most delicious glazed doughnuts in America. Krispy Kreme opened its first locations in the Southeast. Birmingham is now home to one of the largest Krispy Kremes in the country as well as the largest in the area with 24 hour drive-thru service, located on Hwy. 31 in the suburb of Hoover. Hint: The best time to buy hot doughnuts is 6 a.m.-10 a.m. and 6 p.m.-11p.m.
5. The Birmingham Flea Market
Walk right on past the Batman paraphernalia and the reel that promises to “cast a country mile,” and get to the good stuff. The good stuff is the old stuff---the Hull vases and Depression glass, the Lance cookie jars and oak pie safes. Booths of the good stuff, about 200 of them, blanket the floor of the vast Exposition Hall at the Alabama State Fairgrounds, where tourists spend happy hours culling through the treasures.
Gaining in popularity are those wacky, wonderfully bad things from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. In circles that know, this has come to be called the “Populuxe” period. These popular luxury items are holdovers from one of America’s great shopping sprees. As time distances us from that era, the appeal mounts for flying saucer desk lamps, boomerang tables, atomic clocks, pole lamps and bowling trophies. Displays of old postcards seem to attract everybody. Most exhibitors have them catalogued by subject: Valentines, Easter, Romance, Biggest/Best/Oldest. The aforementioned items are, of course, just a tiny sample of the head-spinning assortment of treasures at the Birmingham Flea Market. Open the first weekend of each month.
6. The Heaviest Corner on Earth
The “Heaviest Corner on Earth” isn’t really the heaviest corner on earth of course. But it is a striking tribute to Birmingham’s miraculous growth in the early 1900s. And it is an important legacy from the city’s formative years.
The Heaviest Corner on Earth refers to a grouping of four early skyscrapers anchoring the intersection of 20th Street and First Avenue North in the heart of downtown. The structures heralded Birmingham’s coming of age at the turn of the century when the smokestacks of heavy industry belched the soot and grime of prosperity.
From 1903 to 1913, seven skyscrapers sprang up in the flourishing downtown district. Four at the main intersection created a striking cluster, setting the scale for their successors. The towering giants were monstrous in comparison to the delicate 19th century buildings along First Avenue. The residents of Birmingham were sure the dominance of the soaring structures made the intersection the “heaviest corner on earth.” And they proudly proclaimed it so.
7. Niki's West Steak and Seafood Restaurant
Greek chicken, liver and onions, country fried steak, veal cutlets, pork chops, turnip greens, succotash, squash, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, butter beans, fresh corn, seven layer salad, rutabagas, cabbage, fried green tomatoes, mashed potatoes, peach cobbler, red velvet cake, sweet potato pie, apple pie, coconut cake, banana pudding, so much more. This Greek-owned restaurant may have one of the world's most heavily laden steam tables. Pleasing customers since 1957, Niki's is a Birmingham institution. But be forewarned: Do no linger in line being indecisive. This place is packed and the servers don't play. Be ready to order and keep moving, and do not even think about being on your cell phone!
8. Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Grave
There was simply no mistaking that characteristic growl, a voice that “might have once belonged to an alligator,” a sports reporter once wrote. Adoring fans knew the voice belonged to Paul William “Bear” Bryant, college football’s winningest coach. Born on a farm in Moro Bottom, Arkansas, in 1914, Bryant was athletic director and head football coach at Tuscaloosa’s University of Alabama for 25 years. His nickname “Bear” came from a childhood encounter at a carnival that was passing through near his Arkansas home. One of the attractions was a bear whose trainer offered a dollar a minute to anybody who would wrestle the beast. Bryant accepted. He pinned the bear solidly, and the trainer began to whisper to Bryant, “Let him up. Let him up!” The carnival man wanted some action to hold his crowd. Years later when Bryant recalled the story, he’d say, “Hell, for a dollar a minute, I wanted to hold him ‘til he died.”
After a series of coaching jobs around the country, Bryant returned to his Tuscaloosa alma mater. Under his leadership the Alabama Crimson Tide won six national championships and 13 Southeastern Conference titles. His Alabama team played in 24 consecutive bowl games. Bryant retired in December 1982. On January 26, 1983, he died in Tuscaloosa of a massive heart attack.
Bryant was buried in Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery. Ten of thousands of grief-stricken admirers lined the 50-mile funeral procession from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. Bear’s last resting place sits on a small shady hill in the Birmingham cemetery. Since his death, the gravesite has attracted so many visitors that cemetery personnel, weary of giving directions, finally painted a crimson line from the entrance gates to his Block 30 grave.
9. The Alabama Theatre
Rescued from the wrecking ball by a dedicated band of landmark preservationists, the Alabama Theatre is a fabulous 1920s movie palace on downtown’s Third Avenue North. Movies and stage shows filled the schedule in 1927 when the state’s most lavish entertainment house opened its doors. Silent movies were the fare of the era, dramatized through accompaniment on the “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ. The massive organ is still played during special events and silent movie screenings at the Alabama. The theater also features weekly movie classics, some in 3-D. The theatre is a popular and unusual venue for concerts by nationally famous performers.
10. Joe Minter’s Yard
It can only be described as a blend of found-object artist Charlie Lucas and the late messages-from-God artist Howard Finster. It is a breathtaking collection of folk art structures that fill the entire side yard at Joe Minter’s modest home on Nassau Street. A construction worker by trade, Minter, probably in his late 60s, was called to build his visionary sculptures when God spoke to him and told him to plant a garden of memory. It is one he’s been building ever since.
African heritage is a dominant theme in Minter’s work, and the garden blazes with yellow, green, red and black, traditional colors of the flags of many African nations. Bands of African warriors rise high above the other sculptures, their heads fashioned from bowling balls or the hoods of old hairdryers. Minter builds his sculptures from items he finds at thrift shops and from scraps of wood and metal he finds beside the road.
A particularly moving sculpture pays tribute to the four little girls killed in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Placards of wood are painted with each child’s name and sit on empty folding chairs. Nearby a jail cell surrounds a discarded commode, a scene representing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous jailing in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era. The toilet tank is covered with block lettering detailing the event.
Downplaying the talent and creative genius that mark the garden, Minter says simply, “All of this is really just the hand of God.”
For more information on these and other diverse Birmingham secrets---or for the regular Tourist Guide---call the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-458-8085 or go to our Web site at www.birmingham.travel.