A couple days ago the Birmingham News reported that the Elyton School (above), just a few minutes’ drive out of downtown Birmingham at Tuscaloosa Avenue and Center Street, may be demolished as part of a development proposal for senior housing at the site. The former elementary school, closed for about 10 years, is the second-oldest in the City after Powell School. It was built in 1908 in what was then the independent town of Elyton (which would soon be merged into Birmingham).
While I was prepared to appreciate historic architecture, upon my visit I was struck not just by the solidity and high quality of the structure, but by the particularly fine level of architectural detail. Many of these older schools have more recent additions, and this one is no exception–although in this case the addition is a wonderful, 1920′s era wing that works well with the original.
One can see that later addition to the right above. Many of us are mildly perplexed that such an historic structure would be considered for demolition, right in the middle of ongoing efforts to save Powell School. Time after time, old school buildings in other cities have been renovated with great success for new uses (see this earlier post here). Unfortunately it would appear that Vantage Development, judging from their website, has had little if any experience with anything but suburban, stick-built senior housing.
Back in 2005, there was indeed a proposal to renovate the existing building into senior housing–but the City and the Board of Education could not agree on the price for transfer, and the deal died. Since then, the building has not been properly secured (see above), and neighborhood residents are understandably upset about squatters, etc. While the situation is frustrating, it’s not a reason to abandon hopes of recycling this building.
The surrounding neighborhood has challenges–more boarded up structures across the street, for instance–but also great assets, like the historic commercial structures a block south where First Avenue North meets Center Street (above), Arlington Antebellum Home a few blocks west, or the thriving Princeton-Baptist medical a few blocks past Arlington. Elyton School could become a shining jewel in a rejuvenated Arlington-West End neighborhood. Let’s hope the neighborhood, and City leaders, will do all in their power to explore the viability of saving the structure. Because folks, they don’t build it like this anymore. And our City is that much poorer with the loss of another piece of its history.
UPDATE: Here’s a rendering below, courtesy of Vantage Development, of the proposal (shown along Center Street):