Painful for Birmingham to lose landmark castle

Josh Carpenter

Today’s guest columnist is Josh Carpenter.

Three weeks after I joined Southern Research as president and CEO, a 12-story condo building collapsed in Miami, killing 98 people and raising alarms about the structural integrity of buildings across the country.

This tragedy led many organizations to take a hard look at the safety of their physical structures. Southern Research was no exception, and our review quickly turned to the Quinlan Castle, an old apartment building sitting in the heart of our campus.

With its stone exterior, the castle appears solid from the outside. But inside, the castle is in literal shambles, falling victim to the elements and vandals and time. To assess its safety, we hired a structural engineer and other building experts this summer to evaluate the castle and its potential for rehabilitation.

They found serious safety hazards. Beyond the obvious — fallen interior walls, caved-in ceilings, and buckled floors — they noted serious structural issues. They included corroded concrete with exposed, rusted rebar — one of the very issues cited in the Miami condo collapse.

Could we bring back the castle to use for our scientific endeavors? Our building experts concluded that addressing the safety issues alone would be cost-prohibitive, and the building simply could not be converted, at any price, into the modern lab space our scientists need.

Even with current building codes, the load requirements for an apartment building are less than half the load requirements for a research facility like ours. The assumption is that the building codes were even less stringent in 1927. The ceiling heights from that time can’t accommodate modern infrastructure and life safety needs, and trying to ensure disability access would be nearly impossible in a structure whose insides are defined by steep, narrow stairs.

After careful study and consideration of our options, we sought and received approval from the city of Birmingham’s Design Review Committee to bring down the castle. We will replace it with a modern structure that teems with some of our state’s best science, retains and attracts talent to make Southside more vibrant, and becomes a source of pride for our community.

As one of Birmingham’s oldest employers, we respect historical institutions. We don’t take joy in bringing down a building that has stood for so many years. We welcome suggestions from the community about ways that we may be able to preserve and use some elements of the castle for other purposes.

But this almost century-old structure simply does not work for Southern Research’s mission, nor for the dedicated employees who work here.

Benefit Birmingham, Jefferson County and the state of Alabama

COVID-19 revealed healthcare heroes in our midst, and I am proud to work alongside many of them at Southern Research. Our scientists have been studying viruses like COVID-19 for 20 years. When this new global threat emerged, the team at Southern Research shifted into high gear, working nonstop to test possible treatments and employing every possible tool to combat the pandemic.

Scientists at Southern Research have made substantial contributions in testing, treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. In partnership with UAB, we helped refine remdisivir, the first treatment approved for the virus. In partnership with Tonix Pharmaceuticals, we helped develop a potential vaccine that is in clinical trials. These are just two examples, and they don’t begin to capture what Southern Research has contributed to our nation’s pandemic response.

Heading into 2022, we have an opportunity to invest more and expand this important part of our mission, both to magnify our work to combat COVID and to better prepare for the next threat that might endanger our family, our friends, and the Birmingham community.

Our plans for a new facility on our Southside campus – a center for pandemic resilience — will double the amount of lab space we have available for research and development on infectious diseases like COVID-19. It will also broaden our capacity to address common diseases and health conditions that have made COVID particularly lethal to Alabamians.

In addition to extending our scientific reach, the new space will allow us to hire 100 additional scientists and nurture commercial research, enlarging our economic impact as well.

I believe everyone agrees our plans will benefit Birmingham, Jefferson County and the state of Alabama. But there is understandably some discomfort that this important new facility will be located at the site of Quinlan Castle.

The castle is a charming, quirky, almost whimsical landmark in Birmingham. Built in 1927 as an apartment building, its appearance was designed to replicate castles that American soldiers had seen in Europe during World War I.

Like many others in Birmingham, I’ve smiled in passing the castle and seeing those turrets and battlements in the city skyline.

But we can no longer ignore the castle’s dangerous condition issues, the result of many decades of deterioration and neglect.

We firmly believe that trying to preserve the castle is not the best use of this site or our resources. We believe our community will be much better served by building a facility that allows us to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow — and that represents a real investment in Birmingham’s future.

We are building a castle for the 21st century. This new structure won’t feature turrets or battlements, but it will allow us to improve our fight against some our community’s most dangerous enemies – chronic illness and infectious disease.

Josh Carpenter, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Southern Research (SR), an independent, nonprofit scientific research organization. Now affiliated with UAB, SR was founded in 1941 and currently employs 400 full-time scientists, engineers, and professional personnel.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  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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17 thoughts on “Painful for Birmingham to lose landmark castle”

  1. Thanks, Josh for putting the community on notice of what will be happening to this landmark. It’s good news that SR plans to construct a new, modern landmark for researching and fighting infectious diseases, plus house additional laboratories, which are good for the people of Birmingham and for Birmingham as a city. Will ponder on how some of those pieces of the castle can be repurposed!

    1. I have had to say goodbye to buildings that were special to me: Eastwood Mall and Century Plaza both of which were newer than Quinlan Castle. Also the Parliament Hotel was imploded when it was deemed no longer usable and I think that was built in the 1960’s.. There is no reason that Quinlan Castle or other 1920’s buildings should be any different.

  2. I was born and raised in Birmingham on top of Red Mountain on 18th Avenue South. As a child I used to imagine knights in shining armor at the castle. Will miss seeing it but I understand the reasoning.

  3. Excellent Explanation Josh! The irony is that the space will still be a fortress for a modern day army of the most intelligent soldiers- fighting to protect the world from infectious disease, helping win the war on cancer, protecting our environment, our health and more. What if the building design had a slight element of “castle turrets” at the corners- as simple as a change in brick color or enhanced metal flashing at the roof line- symbolic of the Southern Research mission and honoring the previous iconic structure.

  4. I date back to the destruction of Terminal Station — which the city still regrets — and the implosion of the original Tutwiler Hotel on 20th Street, among other losses. Both losses took away a part of the city’s distinct character and were replaced with bland structures. The loss of Quinlan Castle may be necessary for the success of SRI, but it will be another blemish on the architectural charm of the city and another example of UAB and its affiliates trashing “what was” on Southside (I grimace every time I see the UAB football “pavilion” roof as it blights the city skyline).

    A modest proposal: Mr. Carpenter indicates that the stone exterior “appears” more solid than the derelict interior. Might that original exterior structure be repurposed — if only partially — into the new facility exterior? I can envision preserving the two street-facing exteriors and building out and above as necessary. In that manner, the basic architectural appeal and integrity of that corner could be maintained.

  5. Is there another location the city or state could offer in exchange? Seems like SRI could build their research facility and lab anywhere? Could this property instead be bought by Birmingham? Even though SRI owns the property I think the cultural value potentially outweighs any individual owner’s economic interests in this particular location. A structure like Quinland should be considered for being held indefinitely, and in trust for the community. It’s symbol and location is too unique and valuable to just cede to any individual owner’s particular interests. We just don’t have enough culturally significant landmarks anymore. Could it be taken over and converted into a park and maybe even a type of tourist attraction? Maybe it can never be repurposed for it’s former uses. Maybe it would be very expensive to do anything with it. I think it is worth it in the long run though. No one will say twenty years from now, “It was too expensive to save I wish we had not saved it.” They will say, “We had this cool castle landmark that was unique to the area, but now we either have this bland building here, or nothing at all because for whatever reason the new building deal fell through at the last minute, and it never happened.” Don’t think that couldn’t happen? See what happened to the old train station terminal. Real estate deals in general are never slam dunks until everything is actually completed. They constantly fall though for various reasons and at any number of stages. The castle likely could be repurposed for something that would at least provide some recreation. Just a failure of vision, imagination, and collaboration to figure this out.

  6. Yes, but! OK, it is not suitable for labs. So move some offices to the Castle and renovate that office space for labs. History and landmarks once gone are gone. Remember Terminal Station? And Sloss has become a venue. The Alabama and Lyric theatres have become major pieces of downtown that we can all be very proud of. And i would bet there are historical funds and grants around that could help. The Castle is simply too unique to not explore everything possible. (Full disclosure: I always wanted an office in the northeast corner tower.)

  7. Applaud SRI’s proposal to re-purpose Quinlan Castle into a scientific monument to benefit the health and wellbeing of our City, State and Nation! As a nod to history, maybe the City will rename one of the abutting streets “Quinlan Avenue “?

  8. Let’s begin by agreeing that Quinlan Castle can’t be saved. The structural integrity of it is too far gone. However, building something that is the complete aesthetic opposite of what was once there and calling it “a castle for the 21st century” while saying that “we respect historical institutions” isn’t helping.

    Quinlan Castle isn’t an institution, it’s a landmark. The respect for history doesn’t appear to be extended to the landmark it’s destroying here. A “modern castle” doesn’t have to mean another glass box in a sea of other glass boxes, as it appears in the mock up for the new building taking Quinlan’s place. This doesn’t add any interest to the skyline that people are concerned about losing with the destruction of the castle. (https://www.al.com/news/2021/11/unusable-quinlan-castle-could-be-demolished-replaced-with-southern-research-biotech-center.html)

    A building can be constructed that allows for the goals of “a modern structure that teems with some of our state’s best science, retains and attracts talent to make Southside more vibrant, and becomes a source of pride for our community,” while still respecting the architectural aesthetic of the landmark that this community is losing.

    This isn’t a zero-sum game. There can be both modern amenities and historic references represented in a newly constructed, cost effective building. It just has to be a priority.

    This doesn’t have to be another sad story of Birmingham losing yet another historic landmark. Instead, this could be an opportunity to say, “Remember when we couldn’t save Quinlan Castle? The community is grateful that we honored it by retaining elements of it with the new building we created with the community concerns in mind.”

    And just in case the sentiments about Terminal Station weren’t mentioned enough, this al.com article has a poll: https://www.al.com/spotnews/2014/02/birmingham_terminal_station_ma.html

  9. My wife’s uncle was murdered in Quinlan Castle in 1928. He was shot by a jealous ex-husband while in the apartment of the man’s ex-wife. Despite the building’s significance in the family’s history, I am unaware if any members plan to formally oppose its demolition. My personal objection lies with the completely bland glass box that SRI plans to construct in its place. I would urge SRI’s leadership to take a look at the marvelous headquarters of one of its chief rivals for biotech grants and contracts – Hudson Alpha Institute in Huntsville – which also collaborates with UAB. HA’s soaring interior atrium and use of natural materials reflects the groundbreaking research taking place there. While architecture is probably inconsequential in funding or conducting biotech research, HA presents an image of innovation and quality ideas. Here’s an opportunity for Birmingham to keep pace with Huntsville. By the way, HA’s founder, Jim Hudson, is a preservationist as well as a biotech innovator.

  10. I really can not believe the tragedy in Miami is referenced to justify the plan SRI has had for the demolition of Quinlan Castle. The community was promised SRI would restore the exterior and modify the interior to the needs of the Company. People were very vocal about this historic building at the time of this purchase and wanted it to remain in the history of our city. The Train Terminal which was mirrored in Germany was also a great historical loss for our city. That destruction was done for the good it would bring to so many people when it was built back up for the community needs. Go look at this disaster…nothing has ever been done with this property. The loss of this historic building is another stain on our city when it could have remained and been a shinning example of the SRI commitment to Birmingham and still been of service to SRI. I am very sad to see this bad history repeat itself.

  11. What if we didn’t “throw the baby out with the bath water”??? What I am suggesting is this…save as much of the exterior brick/rock as possible and use this to build four towers somewhere? The most obvious place for the towers, would be in the vicinity of where the castle is now, at the SRI complex. If it wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be there, how about in a park somewhere, or around five points? Those of us who have fond memories of Quinlan Castle would be far more understanding (and forgiving) of is raising, if there were some repurposing of it’s façade?! FOOD FOR THOUGHT!

    1. Great ideas, Mr. Gainey. I think the SR suits have decided to ignore our pleas and many rational options for some sort of respectful preservation. Quinlan Castle, like so many landmarks that were worth some sort of preservation, will just be another place that those who remember will point out as “used to be.”

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