ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Darlene Negrotto. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
Take a moment to recall a fond memory of Vulcan.
Perhaps it was a childhood outing with family, or a romantic evening admiring the city lights.
Now think of the hundreds of thousands of others over the decades who have held similar heartfelt memories – and know that similar memories will continue to be made far into the future.
Vulcan is a common thread in our community. He serves as an important link to our past, and to the generations yet to come.
Vulcan has been a prominent fixture on our skyline for generations, yet, have you ever wondered why this massive statue of a bare-bottomed mythological figure was created, and what he has meant to our ancestors?
Vulcan was created for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, to introduce the young city of Birmingham and the state of Alabama to the world, and to advertise the wealth of natural resources available in our region.
“The original iron man” was an effective ambassador to the 20 million people who attended the fair, capturing people’s imaginations and inspiring many to move their families and businesses to our area. Vulcan was truly representative of our potential.
Vulcan moved to Alabama State Fairgrounds (becomes a pickle salesman)
After his triumphant exhibition as the emissary for our state at the World’s Fair, and despite offers to purchase him by St. Louis and San Francisco (wishing to bookend the Statue of Liberty), Vulcan returned to Birmingham to spend the next thirty years presiding over the festive atmosphere of the Alabama State Fairgrounds.
There, the highly visible Vulcan became a popular meeting spot for fairgoers, and the statue was ultimately utilized for advertising ice cream, soft drinks, pickles and overalls, among many other products. While this stint at the state fair brought him closer to his community’s hearts and memories as a fixture of popular culture, this treatment was not indicative of the level of respect intended by his creators, and a move began to reclaim Vulcan as a civic symbol.
At this point in the 1930s, Birmingham was reeling from the Great Depression with only 8,000 of 108,000 local workers employed, and was called the hardest hit city in the country by President Roosevelt.
Birmingham Kiwanis Club comes to the rescue
In a move that was both practical and powerfully symbolic, the Birmingham Kiwanis Club came forward with a plan to position Vulcan in a place of honor, upon a pedestal atop the mountain of ore from which he was cast.
With funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), local craftsmen were put to work, and our residents were given a symbol that would inspire them to look ahead to better days, as this quote from Birmingham’s Vulcan eloquently states: “It is the hope of those who planned the project that the workers in mills and mines may find in the park, with its magnificent panoramas, and in the towering monument of Vulcan itself, a further feeling of pride in our city and in the part they are playing in its building.”
The completion of Vulcan Park in 1939 provided a milestone moment for the Birmingham region. The dedication of the new park was celebrated with a citywide festival that lasted for nine days, including a three-night theatrical extravaganza with a cast of over 1,200. It was, according to newspaper coverage, “the greatest civic and historic event in Birmingham”.
With his location on what was then the primary north/south highway, in an era when owning a family car was becoming the norm, Vulcan instantly put Birmingham on the map with travelers, becoming Alabama’s first major tourist attraction.
With the dawning of the modern era of the late 60s, there was a new optimism in the dramatic changes of that revolutionary decade. This sensibility, coupled with the city’s upcoming centennial in 1971, brought a new wave of civic boosterism, and a new push for tourism with Vulcan as the focal point.
Plans to modernize Vulcan Park originally included personal rapid transit and a hotel, but ultimately only the modernization of the tower and park were completed. In the sleek geometric lines of the marble-clad pedestal, Vulcan communicated to the world that Birmingham embraced the space age and innovation.
Vulcan in danger of crashing down
As time passed and Birmingham’s suburbs grew in the 70s & 80s, Vulcan’s deteriorating condition came to reflect the condition of our city center, and in many ways he reflected our self-image. In the early and mid 90s, efforts were made to rally around the cause of restoring our Vulcan, but we were not successful in uniting to take on this project.
When you think of our city 20 years ago, we often referred to ourselves as the “city of perpetual promise,” as many locals recognized that we had so many of the elements that make for an attractive quality of life including a strong local economy, excellent cultural institutions, beautiful natural environment, among others. We had so much, so many of the raw materials, yet for years we remained just on the cusp of something big.
The crisis in 1999 of learning that our Vulcan was in danger of crashing down from his pedestal, along with the negative national press of our symbol, the soul of our region, literally rusting away was the powerful call to action that our community needed. Our deep emotional ties to Vulcan, who represented all of us regardless of background, became resoundingly apparent.
Vulcan is saved
Along with donations from corporations and the Federal government, contributions came from people from all walks of life, in the form of coins from school children, even monthly donations of $1 from an elderly resident.
Ultimately, $16 million was raised and the restoration project was completed to the highest standards, as befits our community’s symbol. The park reopened in 2004 to wide acclaim on the local, regional and national levels, winning dozens of awards including the nation’s highest honor in historic preservation.
Yet, in many ways, the greatest achievement was that we, as a community, came together to achieve a shared goal. Think of what that tremendous success meant to us, a community segmented and struggling to come to terms with our past. And think of what the success of Vulcan’s restoration has meant for us and our collective psyche over the past 12 years. If we had not succeeded in restoring Vulcan, would we have taken on a project as significant as Railroad Park? Would we be seeing the many new developments downtown? Would we be receiving such positive national and international press? Would young people find Birmingham hip and progressive and want to move here?
The enthusiastic and widespread community support for the restoration of Vulcan was a turning point for Birmingham – just as his creation and appearance at the World’s Fair was 112 years ago.
Vulcan unifying symbol of Birmingham
Vulcan is not simply an icon. He is us. He is the unifying symbol of what our community is made of and stands for both literally and figuratively, for our reputation and our honor. Today, as he did when he was created 112 years ago, Vulcan represents our civic pride and our potential as individuals and as a true community.
Since the reopening in 2004, Darlene Negrotto has served as President & CEO of Vulcan Park Foundation, the entity that renovated and now operates Vulcan Park and Museum on behalf of the city of Birmingham. Previously, she has held a number of leadership roles in the hospitality industry in the southeast.
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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).