Ever since my first trip out west in 2008, when I tormented my family with requests to stop and photograph old motels, gas stations, and historic neon, I’ve been enamored of roadside architecture. I am far from the only fan, and numerous websites and apps will ply you with oddities and curiosities to see along your chosen route in the United States. During our trip to Florida last year, I insisted we stop in Birmingham, Alabama on the way back to see Vulcan Iron Man, the city’s contribution to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The towering (56-feet high) god of the forge predates real roadside architecture (he was created in 1904), but Vulcan’s placement in a public park on top of Red Mountain in the 1930s fits in perfectly with the beginning of a new chapter in American life, travel, and architecture.
At the turn of the 20th century, Birmingham was an industrial powerhouse and symbol of the “New South.” A giant man of iron, then, was the perfect promotional piece for the world’s fair. In just seven months, Italian-born sculptor Giuseppe Moretti designed the statue and each of Vulcan’s 27 pieces were fired separately (of Sloss pig iron) and fastened together with steel bolts. Vulcan’s foot is over 10 feet high and six feet long – and weighs six tons. The creation of this marketing marvel was itself the masterpiece.
Vulcan’s path from World’s Fair glory (both St. Louis and San Francisco tried to purchase him) back to Birmingham was…segmented. After returning south in 1905, he lay in pieces on Red Mountain for almost two years. In 1906, he was reassembled, and greeted visitors to the Alabama State Fair Grounds for almost 30 years. But his massive size made him a perfect billboard, and Birmingham city leaders wanted him in a more lofty (and less commercial) position. Several groups, including the Alabama Highway Department, the Kiwanis Club, the Birmingham Parks and Recreation Board, and the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, joined forces to acquire land and funds for a park in which Vulcan would be the principal attraction.
A tower made of locally-quarried sandstone was designed by the Birmingham firm of Warren, Knight and Davis – the 124-foot, octagonal tower would support Vulcan as he perched above the city. Vulcan Park opened in 1939, and though the iron man may have been the chief inspiration, the park, funded largely by the Works Progress Administration, was intended to be “an ideal spot for untold scenic beauty.” Original elements of the park included a terraced water feature, similar to many seen on the grounds of English county houses (like Chatsworth). I can only imagine how incredible the cascade was, spilling down from the base of Vulcan’s tower – but a renovation in 1969 removed every trace of the fountain.
The new Vulcan Park, located on the main north/south route through Birmingham, was an unparalleled success. In 1946, an increase in automobile traffic – and wrecks – compelled the Birmingham Jaycee’s to place a lighted traffic symbol over the spearpoint in Vulcan’s right hand. It glowed green or red depending on traffic fatalities in the city. The “temporary” traffic signal remained up for 43 years.
But the construction of Interstate 65 drew traffic away from Vulcan Park, and it fell into decline. As was often the case with historic downtowns in the mid-20th century, a desire to “modernize” the park to keep up with the changing times was well-intended – but ended up destroying much of the park’s original naturalistic plan.
By 1999, Vulcan was showing his age, and the park was closed so restoration work on the statue (and tower) could commence – once the funds were secured. When Vulcan was secured to his tower in the 1930s, 60,000 pounds of concrete were poured into him to anchor him to the tower base. The concrete, plus water infiltration, had caused severe structural damage to the statue. It took $14.5 million to restore Vulcan, build a visitor’s education center, and rehab the park. When the park reopened in 2003, Vulcan stood proudly on his base again – but this time, supported by a stainless steel skeletal structure instead of concrete.
I was thrilled with the Vulcan Iron Man. We climbed to the top of the tower (an elevator tower was constructed as part of the 21st century restoration, but we needed the exercise!) and gazed out at the panorama of Birmingham (with many historic neighborhoods I didn’t get to visit). The Vulcan Center, the education building to the west of Vulcan’s tower, provides a wonderful overview of not only the birth of Vulcan, but the rise and fall of Birmingham’s iron and steel industry – and the city’s role in the civil rights movement. The next morning, I walked down many of those streets I had seen from the top of Vulcan, tracing the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail and marveling, as I often do, at the myriad layers of history in any one place. Then, we got back in the car, making our meandering way back to the Bluegrass.