Norwood Boulevard Historic District
The Norwood Boulevard Historic District [†] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Norwood is a residential neighborhood located immediately north of downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Norwood is one of the city's early 20th century planned communities and an early streetcar suburb. Developed by the Birmingham Realty Company in 1912, Norwood was an upper and upper-middle class neighborhood, attracting wealthy members of Birmingham's industrial community. The Norwood Boulevard Historic District contains a singular educational resource and a significant collection of residential resources located along Norwood Boulevard, the principal thoroughfare of the neighborhood. Located within the Norwood Boulevard Historic District are excellent examples of early to mid-twentieth century architecture reflecting the development of the area from 1912 to 1951.
In 1912, B. B. Meriwether, civil engineer for the Birmingham Realty Company surveyed and laid off 28 full and partial city blocks for development. The intricate plan called for the extension of Birmingham's grid plan combined with a serpentine boulevard and a circular avenue. The officers of the Birmingham Realty Company named the principal boulevard and the "elite" subdivision for Stanley Norwood, real estate man and friend of Leslie Fullenweider, president of Birmingham Realty. There are some slight similarities between Elyton Land Company's earlier Highland Avenue development (1885) and its successor's Norwood project In addition to a serpentine boulevard, the Highland Avenue neighborhood included two circular avenues, Rhodes and Hanover Circles. Almost thirty years later, Birmingham Realty Company used a serpentine boulevard, Norwood Boulevard, and a circular avenue as well, Norwood Circle. Perhaps, the officers of the Birmingham Realty Company envisioned re-creating the posh Highland Avenue of the late 19th century atop Flint Ridge. Highland Avenue, however, was located at the base of Red Mountain; Norwood was located on the rolling heights of Flint Ridge.
Early in the development of Norwood, Birmingham Realty encountered a serious setback. The company had expected the streetcar line of real estate magnate, Robert Jemison, to extend to the Norwood development. In 1902, the terminus of the streetcar line was 12th Avenue at 26th Street, west of the Southern Railway. By 1904, the line had been extended to 32nd Street along 12th Avenue, the southern-most street of the Norwood neighborhood. Birmingham Realty had anticipated that Jemison's streetcar line would run up 32nd Street to the end of Norwood Boulevard and then run down the median of the boulevard. The realty company had advertised that Norwood was easily accessible to downtown Birmingham. Realizing that they had no streetcar line to transport its residents, in 1913, Birmingham Realty established the Norwood Transit Company. Despite the name, the company never ran trolleys but began service during the third week of July 1914, using buses with wood streetcar style bodies built by Brill and mounted on two-ton Pierce-Arrow chassis. These are believed to have been the first buses used in Birmingham.
Having temporarily solved its transportation problem, Birmingham Realty Company launched an aggressive advertisement campaign to sell Norwood. The emblem for the neighborhood was a cross made with the intersecting names of Norwood. The neighborhood was called the "Placid Place" due to its elevated location above the factories and steel mills of Birmingham and North Birmingham. Throughout 1913 and 1914, ads ran that asked Birmingham residents not to "Forget It's High and Dry. No Pools To Breed Mosquitoes. No Malaria. No Dust. No Smoke. Everything To Make For Health." Norwood tried to answer any questions that potential homebuilders might pose. Norwood is on the range of hills which are to the north of Birmingham, and commands a view not only of the city in the valley but of North Birmingham on the other side. Smoke, dust and turmoil cannot ascent to its placid height, the ascent of which is so gradual that one is not conscious he has climbed until he turns and looks about him. Moreover, it is within a few minutes' walk of the heart of Birmingham, and the time consumed in the ride there by electric car is almost inconsiderable. Three words apply to it with a fitness which makes them its own. Beauty, Salubrity, Accessibility.
Norwood has paved streets and alleys and miles of smooth and firm sidewalks. It has water mains and electric lights. Provisions have been made for all the modern utilities and conveniences. The purchaser of a lot has nothing to do but build his house, no worry about grades, no cause for fear that his holding will in any way deteriorate by the washing of the rainfall or for any other conceivable contingency which it is possible for the inventive genius of today to provide against whatever may have been the little lapses of nature — and they were fewer here than in any other portion of Birmingham and its suburbs — they have been made good.
Norwood is laid out on no small scale. All of the lots are 60 x 190 feet. There is room for the rose garden, the vine trellis, the fruit orchard, and — changing from the sentimental to the utilitarian — room for the kitchen garden and the stable, room for the home life to expand in whatever way it will. The liberality of the company in respect to the dimensions of the lots is truly remarkable when the enormous expenditure of preparation is taken into account.
Norwood is the recognition on the part of the Birmingham Realty Company of the necessity for a residential section where people of refined taste have that privilege of paramount importance to them — the dwelling together in congenial surroundings in an atmosphere free of physical and moral taint. So admirably has been the choice of the location, so carefully have been safeguarded the ideals and desires, both great and small of the true home-lover. It is doubtful whether his ingenuity could suggest anything more to ask of nature at the hands of the men who have made the way smooth for him.
Initial sales were brisk and by 1913, over 100 homes had been constructed in Norwood. In addition to newspaper advertising, in 1914, Birmingham Realty Company published its Norwood book, a bound volume complete with photographs of some of the more imposing homes. By 1915, the company was selling twenty-five lots a month and by October of that year, advertisements announced that lots remaining unsold "may now almost literally be counted on the fingers of the hand. But each of them is a choice location."
A typical 60 x 90 foot lot cost $1,600 or between $25 and $30 a frontage foot. All of the lots of Norwood, however, were not purchased by potential homebuilders. The qualities that attracted future homeowners also caught the attention of speculators, something in which Birmingham Realty Company took pride. In September of 1915, Birmingham Realty Company announced in the Birmingham Age Herald that "a spot cash offer of $2,500 has been refused by the holder of a lot at Twenty-Ninth Street and Twelfth Avenue, Norwood. This is upward of $40 a foot, and the offer represents about 35 percent increase in the purchase price. We merely cite this to show how lots in Norwood are appreciating in value. As for ourselves, we are disposing of the comparatively few lots remaining unsold on the same easy and equitable terms as heretofore. We advise those who contemplate purchasing not to delay." By 1916, the few remaining lots were bringing $2,800 to $3,000.
As predicted, Norwood attracted the cream of Birmingham's industrial entrepreneurs but also lured the average middle- and upper-middle class businessmen. Residents of Norwood included doctors, grocers, teachers, engineers, food brokers, clerks, lawyers, veterinarians, and Alabama Power Company employees. The Yieldings of Yieldings Department Store, the Broyles of Broyles Furniture Company, the Walkers of Walkers Drug Company, the Felicities of Consumer Ice Company, the Gramercys of Magic City Candy Company, the Adams of Adams Produce, and the Kidds of Sunnyland Refining Margarine Company, purchased lots and erected imposing homes along Norwood Boulevard.
By 1928, those residents of the boulevard could catch a streetcar at the pavilion at the intersection of 15th Avenue, 32nd Street, and Norwood Boulevard. The streetcar line finally reached the 15th Street entrance of Norwood Boulevard in 1922 and by 1928, the tracks had been laid down the median of Norwood Boulevard. The streetcars carried businessmen from their homes in Norwood, down the hill to the central business district of Birmingham and high school students to Phillips High School at 6th Avenue and 24th Street. In 1925, Warren, Knight and Davis, Birmingham's premier architectural firm, designed a neighborhood elementary school in the Tudor Revival style. Birmingham Realty Company had lobbied the city of Birmingham for a school since it developed Norwood in 1913. By 1925, Dr. J.H. Phillips, Superintendent of Public Schools, resided on Norwood Boulevard and this may have helped in finally securing an elementary school for the neighborhood. In addition to the school, Norwood was served by the Norwood General Hospital, also designed by Warren, Knight and Davis, as well as a the Norwood Baptist Church at 15th Avenue and 26th Streets, and Norwood Methodist Churches at 13th and 31st Streets, both erected in the 1920s.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Norwood was a stable, prosperous neighborhood, home to some of Birmingham's civic, business, and industrial leaders. Because of its location, Norwood was an ideal residential area for Birmingham's business and corporate leaders. The streets were lined with large, commodious, and comfortable homes in a variety of architectural styles. Norwood boasted a good transportation system, as well as excellent educational facilities, religious institutions, and healthcare centers.
Despite its elevated location, however, Norwood was trapped between the industrial centers of Birmingham and North Birmingham and suffered from the heavy smoke and haze that lingered in the air. Additionally, the noisy Southern Railway ran along the western boundary of the neighborhood. In the 1930s the residential areas of Birmingham spread from Highland Avenue to Mountain Terrace and Redmont, over Red Mountain into Shades Valley. New residential subdivisions began to attract homebuilders anxious to escape the smoke and haze of the Birmingham District. The new suburb of Edgewood was advertised as the subdivision "without a railroad crossing" and "free of smoke and dust." Hollywood real estate salesmen suggested buyers move "out of the smoke, come into the ozone." Robert Jemison, Jr., "Mr. Birmingham Real Estate" developed the Redmont area in Shades Valley and then established Mountain Brook Estates on 400 acres of land along Watkins Creek. Homewood and Edgewood were served by streetcar transportation but only the automobile made it possible for men to commute from Hollywood and Mountain Brook, a suburb frequently called the "bedroom of Birmingham" since so many of the city's business and industrial leaders lived there and worked in Birmingham. As many of the residents of the older neighborhoods — Highland Avenue and South Highlands, Bush Hills, and Norwood — moved into Shades Valley, Mountain Brook became the focus of Birmingham society. Nevertheless, Norwood continued to be viewed as an economically stable neighborhood throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. After World War II, however, Norwood began to slip into a slow decline.
† Adapted from: Jeff Mansell, Mansell & Company and Trina Brinkley, National Register of Historic Places, Norwood Boulevard Historic District, Jefferson County, Alabama, nomination document, 2000, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.