The Chestnut Hill Historic District [†] is majestically set on a hill overlooking the eastern end of Highland Avenue in the South Highlands area of Birmingham. The district contains 100 single-family residences, 45 outbuildings and a church sanctuary and educational building, all constructed primarily between 1915 and 1930. One of several middle-class residential developments directly related to the Highland Avenue car line, the district is cohesive and remains essentially intact.
The 1913 layout of the Chestnut Hill development is defined by the topography of a hill that rises and steeply slopes above the east end of Highland Avenue. The natural contours of the hill seemingly inspired the winding street patterns which dominate the area and unify its layout. These crescents re-enforce the isolation of the neighborhood by preventing through traffic, with motor access to the district from 31st Street (Chestnut) and Highland Drive.
One specific design feature of the district reflects the influence of the Highland Avenue car line. Three sets of concrete steps built into the hillside along the eastern edge of the district were incorporated in the 1913 plan to facilitate access to Highland Avenue for the use of the line providing transportation to the city. Broad, single flights rise from Highland Avenue to a parapeted landing where two separate curved runs rise to Highland Drive, the street above, while one contains fewer steps because the grade of its site is too tiny to encompass the grander bifurcation exhibited in the other two.
The residences on Chestnut Hill reflect architectural styles ranging from the classic box to varieties of Colonial Revival styles with the occasional appearance of a Mediterranean-influenced villa. The primary distinction of the district is, however, its collection of Craftsman houses. The compatibility of materials, styles, lot sizes, set-back and scale enhances the district and distinguishes it as a remarkably cohesive early 20th-century development, despite the occasional newer structures that dot the landscape.
The houses typify the quality workmanship of several local architects and builders. Birmingham's master of Craftsman architecture, William Leslie Welton, is credited with several designs in the district including the oldest house, situated on 32nd Street and built in 1914-15. Additionally, prominent local architects Joy and Wheelock and Salie and McWhinney were commissioned to design homes on the Hill. In 1924, Charles H. McCauley, an associate of the Welton Firm, chose the Hill for his homesite and built a distinctive cottage on Lakeview Crescent.
The district also includes three church buildings. Only one contributes to the district. Built by Warren, Knight and Davis in 1926, the Independent Presbyterian Church building is an excellent interpretation of the perpendicular Gothic Revival style, and features an ashlar and rough sandstone exterior, copper fleche over the crossing-axis and stained-glass windows. The adjoining half-timber section, with its scissors truss roof was built in 1921 and designed by Miller and Martin. The Neo-Colonial Christian Scientist Church and the First Conservative Baptist Church (now St. Symeon Orthodox Church) are both modern constructions that occupy homesites originally platted as part of the development.
Reflecting the final and most intense surge of development in the South Highlands area preceding the 1930s depression, the Chestnut Hill Historic District is an excellently maintained example of the comfortable and sophisticated urban neighborhoods characteristic of the 1920s in Birmingham. The district survives intact and accurately depicts its 1913 development plan, with no commercial intrusions and a significantly low percentage of alterations to or demolitions of historic properties. The location of the district, its hilly topography and its street layout make it relatively discrete from traffic and isolated from the adjacent neighborhoods. Additionally, the neighborhood residents have succeeded in preserving the single family character of the neighborhood despite the abundance of modern developments and incursions surrounding its boundaries.
Chestnut Hill had two general periods of development: the first between 1884 and 1893 as a pleasure garden associated with Lakeview Amusement Park; the second between 1913 and 1930 as a single-family streetcar neighborhood. As it appears today, the district dates essentially from the latter period because nothing remains from the first period of development.
The completion of the 22nd Street overpass across the railroad tracks in the early 1880s made it possible to lay a passenger streetcar line around the developing Southside. Begun in 1884, the line ran south up 22nd Street to Avenue E (now 5th Avenue). It then ran east and west encircling the Highlands. The eastern "short route" worked up 30th Street to Clairmont Avenue, and then around Highland Avenue at the base of Lakeview Park (now Chestnut Hill). The park had been created by the Elyton Land Company to attract excursion riders and residential development in the area. By 1887, with an industrial boom in full swing, there were enough people living south of the city limits to incorporate the Town of Highlands; however, in 1893 as the depression slowed growth and building throughout the country, Highland became part of the City of Birmingham.
At the turn-of-the-century a second industrial boom touched off major development downtown and in the outlying areas of the city. Meanwhile, the South Highlands suburban neighborhoods (Glen Iris, Five Points and Highland Park) attracted residents from all levels of the middle class, and soon Highland Avenue and Rhodes •Circle replaced Birmingham's 5th Avenue North as the city's most fashionable residential address.
Offering the advantages of comfortable middle-class suburban neighborhoods with easy access to downtown and the new Birmingham Country Club (which occupied the site of the park's hotel), South Highlands reflected a special development pattern that featured a mixture of grand and less pretentious houses, often on adjacent streets platted in a piecemeal fashion by small developers, builders and individual investors. After World War I, however, this pattern changed as South Highland developers responded to the expanding economy of the 1920s with the widespread construction of multilevel apartment buildings. This development changed not only the scale and land use, but also the density of the area.
In 1913 the Birmingham Realty Company platted Chestnut Hill as a middle-class single-family development. Chestnut Hill and Milner Crescent were the two last single-family neighborhoods developed in the South Highlands area. Following the topography of the steeply pitched hill, the developers graded two curved drives—one along the natural crescent of the hill (Lakeview Crescent or 33rd St.), and one along the hill's eastern edge (Highland Drive)—which encircled the comparatively short 32nd Street and opened onto the 31st Street thoroughfare (Chestnut Street). They also included sidewalks and three impressive sets of concrete steps which were built into the hillside to provide access from the heights to the car lines on Highland Avenue. With the exclusive Birmingham Country Club now occupying the site of the old amusement park, Chestnut Hill was promoted as a single-family neighborhood in the Country Club District, and was calculated to appeal to moderately wealthy families interested in suitable homesites. The bulk of building activity in the neighborhood began in 1914 and continued, rather consistently, until 1930. The last original construction was completed between 1929 and 1930, when three bungalows were built along Lakeview Crescent and Highland Drive. During the depression that followed the 1929 crash on Wall Street, there was no building activity.
The early Chestnut Hill home owners comprised an interesting mix of business executives, proprietors and professional people. In fact, many of the original home owners' names reflect successful businesses familiar to modern-day Birmingham such as Louis Phillips, a founder of Burger-Phillips Clothing Store, William R. T. Dunn of the Dunn Construction Company and Donald W. Drennen of Drennen's Motor Car Company. Other original owners included Leo Loeb vice-president of Loveman's Department Store, James B. Hill president and treasurer of Hill Grocery Company (predecessor of the Winn Dixie, Inc.); Doctors John D. Sherrill and Percy Woodall; and attorneys Borden H. Burr of Percy, Brenners and Burr, and F. W. Smith, owner of one of the district's earliest built homes. Charles H. McCauley, an associate in the Welton architectural firm, designed and built his home, a distinctive 1924 cottage in the district; and several distinguished clergymen including Dr. Trevor Mordecai of First Presbyterian, Dr. Middleton Barnwell of the Church of the Advent and Dr. Henry Morris Edmonds of the Independent Presbyterian Church also lived in the district.
The three church buildings included in the district are the only nonresidential buildings on Chestnut Hill. The Independent Presbyterian Church is the only one of the three that contributes to the character of the district while the 1949-50 Neo- Colonial Christian Scientist Church and the 1969 First Conservative Baptist Church are modern constructions.
Founded in 1915, the congregation of Independent Presbyterian comprised the worshippers who followed Dr. H. M. Edmonds when he resigned from South Highlands Presbyterian Church. The congregation met at Temple Emanu-El Sunday mornings, and at the Lyric Theatre downtown Sunday evenings for seven years. In 1921 the congregation moved into the newly completed half-timbered wing which was designed by Birmingham architects Miller and Martin. The handsome ashlar and limestone sanctuary, designed by Warren, Knight and Davis, was completed in 1926. Influenced by the tradition of the Social Gospel and liberal theology, the church congregation conducted a social services ministry administered by a full-time social worker operating out of a downtown office and the Lyric Theatre. Among its best known activities is a Fresh Air Farm for tubercular children sponsored by the Independent congregation each summer. The borders of Chestnut Hill have been threatened with incursions of commercial development for several years. Only the grassy buffer of a parking lot at the northwest corner of 31st Street and Clairmont Avenue, serving an apartment building adjacent to the district's boundaries, intrudes on the originally platted development.
Additionally, the few post-1940s residences are compatible in materials, scale and setback with the historic properties, and therefore do not detract from the general character of the district. Although zoning laws have protected the district to a great extent, a major factor in its maintenance has been the original covenants written into the deeds by the Birmingham Realty Company. The perpetual land-use clause has stood up in court over time, and continues to protect the original nature and use of the neighborhood. Distinguished as one of the best remaining examples of an intact neighborhood development during Birmingham's post-World War I boom period, Chestnut Hill is cherished for its historic atmosphere, architecture and unusual cohesion.
31st Street South • 32nd Street South • 33rd Street South • Highland Drive • Lakeview Crescent • Redmond Avenue