The pain of losing a family treasure to an awakening Birmingham

John W. Scott
John W. Scott

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is John Scott.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

It was a little slice of Birmingham cultural and architectural history.  If you’re of a certain age (that is, old) you may remember going to Waite’s after church on Sunday and having the egg salad sandwich or eclairs.

You may also remember the strange foods over in the small and dusty grocery section, my most clear memory being the tins of chocolate covered ants from South America. 

Or you may remember the ice cream and the dry ice that came with it and ended up (at least for me and my brothers) bubbling and smoking in the bathtub.  Most recently the building housed a southside favorite, Rocky’s Pizza.

Waite’s itself closed in the 1980s, but the building near UAB survived until this April.  It was an art-deco gem built, I’m guessing, in the 1920s.  It was constructed of spare and stark white limestone (again, I’m guessing), with rounded corners and carved details reminiscent of a Marx Brothers movie set.  It had heavy metal awnings over the two entrances, held up by thick chains, the awnings ensconced on the bottom by bare white light bulbs like a 1920s movie theater.  Who the architect was, I have no idea.  I think his work can still be seen in Five Points South now housing the Original Pancake House and Jimmy Johns.  From the look of it, I suspect his work also housed the Steel City Oldsmobile dealership until the Veterans Administration recently put up a parking deck on Seventh Avenue South.

My grandfather, a doctor from Virginia, came to Birmingham in the early 1920s to work for US Steel providing medical care to the company workers.  He bought the Waite’s building in the late 1930s and it remained in the family for almost 80 years.  As my father used to say, it was part of my heritage.  That building always had a special place in my heart.  Now it’s been sold to developers to be torn down and replaced by the latest trend in urban development, a boxy apartment building with chain restaurants on the ground floor.  A “mixed use” building is what it’s called, and they’re sprouting up all over Birmingham from Lakeview to Regions Field.

The Waites, a Southside development with its roots in the building's history as Waite's bakery and deli, a Southside landmark known for its ice cream and cakes for more than 60 years until it closed in 1988
The Waites, a Southside development with its roots in the building’s history as Waite’s Bakery & Deli, a landmark known for its ice cream & cakes for more than 60 years until it closed in 1988

And I helped to make sure the deal went through.

I truly hate to see the Waite’s building go, but the economic realities dictated its demise.  I don’t believe this is an unusual story for family property bought for investment purposes many years previously.

The building was passed down from my grandfather to my grandmother and then to their children in the 1970s.  Four (of the eight) siblings ended up owning the building.  Those four children have long passed on and their ownership interests passed to their spouses and children and now even in one case to a grandchild.

My mother received my father’s interest in the building.  She’s 84 and was counting on the rent to augment her income.  Before the sale closed in the past few weeks, the ownership was divided among three individuals and two trusts, and was bound to be split further in the upcoming years.  It was a mess from an ownership and business perspective.

Except for Rocky’s Pizza, the building was empty for a number of years.  It needed lots of expensive repairs and renovations, including a new roof.  One of the awnings ripped away from the building and crashed to the sidewalk last year.  Luckily, no one was injured, or the Alabama Hammer would be running ads asking if you’ve been injured by a falling awning.  The building was producing enough income to cover taxes and insurance, but that was about it.  It had no parking and no serious prospects for new tenants.  Plus, UAB was making occasional noise about condemning the building under eminent domain and thus paying less for the building than it could have been sold for to a private developer.

The record needs to be set straight.  There’s been some criticism of the developer that bought the building, complaints of losing the building itself, losing a local restaurant to national chains, and losing Stillwater Pub in the building next door that was sold along with the Waite’s building.  I hate to lose the Waite’s building and its history and architecture, and I was partial to Rocky’s muffaletta.  I don’t hate to lose an economic albatross around my family’s neck, however, and I’m glad to see my mother gain some economic security from the sale.  And I am happy to see something that will bring more people and economic activity to downtown Birmingham, which I think the new development will.

Birmingham’s lost a lot of unique architecture over the years, and I would include the Waite’s building in that category.  Unfortunately, however, that is simply the reality sometimes in the life cycle of a city, and in this instance fortunately is a reflection of positive things happening with Birmingham.  As I tell my sons, life is a matter of trade-offs, sometimes good, sometimes bad, most times a little bit of both.

John W. Scott is a business litigation attorney with Scott Dukes & Geisler in downtown Birmingham.  Five years ago, he and his law partners bought and renovated the Waters Building, a three-story brownstone built in 1887 located at 211 22nd Street North, and which is one of the oldest surviving commercial buildings in Birmingham.

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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).

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