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Spring 2020

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 an important legacy from the city’s formative years.

Birmingham, Ala.---The Heaviest Corner on Earth refers to a grouping of four early skyscrapers anchoring the intersection on 20th Street and First Avenue North. 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 spring up in the flourishing downtown district. The four at the main intersection created an unusual massing, setting the scale for their successors. The towering giants were monstrous in comparison to the delicate design of the 19th century buildings along First Avenue.

The resident of Birmingham were sure the overwhelming dominance of these soaring structures made the intersection “the heaviest corner on earth,” and they proudly proclaimed it so.

The Woodward Building on the southwest corner of the intersection was the first steel frame skyscraper in Birmingham. Work on the Woodward attracted a constant crowd of spectators to marvel at the construction. The building is an example of Commercial style architecture, using simple lines, little ornamentation and jutting cornices.

Built in 1906 the Brown Marx Building sits on the northeast corner of the street. The second of these office towers, the building rose to an unprecedented 16 stories. Also designed in the Commercial architectural style, the building underwent an addition less than two years after it was completed, nearly doubling its size.

Situated on the northwest corner, the Colonial Bank Building is an elaborate 16 stories of ornamental terra cotta. Greek and Roman classical motifs and details on the façade give the building a pompous formal air. The building includes a tribute to the architect William Welton and contractor’s representative Frederick Larkin; in the panels about the 16th floor arches are Roman busts bearing the faces of the two men.

The fourth anchor is the John Hand Building, built in 1912. The 20-story tower is built in the Neo-Classical style, considered an absolute design “must” for banking institutions being built around 1910. Corinthian capitals on the three top stories and marble pilasters at the base border the white terra cotta face.

When passersby through this busy intersection gaze upward, the massive group of buildings still has a wonderfully powerful effect. Their contemporary counterparts just a few blocks away are of course much bigger and more commanding than these turn-of-the-century skyscrapers. But standing at that intersection, surrounded by their compelling dignity, you can understand exactly why it once felt like the heaviest corner on earth.

Vickie Ashford-Thompson
phone: (205) 458-8000