Act Two: A Look at Birmingham, Alabama’s Historic Theaters

From the National Trust for Historic Preservation, author Katharine Keane


Home to what was the world’s largest Mickey Mouse Club and acts featuring the Marx Brothers and Mae West, a few Birmingham, Alabama theaters take center stage in preserving and archiving the city’s complicated history from the early 20th century through the Civil Rights movement.

In the Winter 2016 issue of Preservation magazine, you get a glimpse of the Lyric Theatre, one of Birmingham’s historic theaters that is currently undergoing a comprehensive restoration and renovation. We decided to take another look at this and some of the Magic City’s other historic venues that have been restored and stewarded by the local community.

The Alabama Theatre

Constructed in 1927 by Paramount Studios, the Alabama Theatre was built as a classic movie palace characterized by its opulent architecture influence by Art Deco designs of the time (the landmark Chicago Theatre is another famous example of this style). The Alabama, located in Birmingham’s historic theater district, was primarily used as a movie house and soon became known as the home to the largest Mickey Mouse Club in the world; it boasted over 18,000 members before closing almost 10 years after its 1933 organization.

Though it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, by 1987 the owners had declared bankruptcy, and it was purchased by the nonprofit Birmingham Landmarks Inc. The Alabama underwent a major renovation and restoration that was completed by the late '90s during which some of the seats, carpets, and drapes were cleaned or replaced.

While the building still requires extensive maintenance including a new roof, a new boiler, and an updated air conditioning system, the Alabama is flourishing showing classic films and renting space for weddings, graduation ceremonies, and dance recitals.

The Carver Theatre

Now known as the Carver Performing Arts Center, the Carver Theatre was opened in 1935 as one of the first movie houses for African-Americans to see first-run films. Located in the Fourth Avenue Business District that housed much of the African-American community businesses and entertainment venues, the Carver was modernized in 1945 before slowing falling into disrepair and eventually closing in the 1980s. Before its decline, the Carver, sponsored by a local bottling company, was known for accepting bottle caps as payment for the children’s shows that were screened on the weekends.

The City of Birmingham purchased and began restoring the Carver in 1990 in an effort to revitalize the Fourth Avenue neighborhood that had played host to many civil rights events during the decades prior. Today the Carver houses the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame that opened in 1993 and continues to show movies, host concerts, and rent space for special events.

Much of the decorative plaster in the Lyric Theatre was intact, though Evergreene Architectural Arts did custom paintwork throughout.


The Lyric Theatre

Located just across the street from the Alabama Theatre, the Lyric Theatre is currently undergoing an $11 million restoration project, highlighted by the relighting of its iconic marquee in 2013. The theater was originally constructed in 1914 for vaudeville mogul B.F. Keith’s theater circuit—featuring acts like the Marx Brothers and May West—but quickly fell into disrepair following the rise of moving pictures.

Unlike the Alabama which banned African-Americans before the desegregation of the South, the Lyric allowed for African-Americans to sit in the audience—though they were required to sit in separate balcony seating. Before the theater was donated to Birmingham Landmarks Inc. in 1993, it served as office space and was opened as two separate theaters in the 1970s.

When the theater reopens, it will feature a restored 38-foot mural, “Allegory of the Muses,” that was painted by local artist Harry Hawkins. Experts worked to remove black varnish that had almost completely obscured the painting, revealing the depiction underneath that has now been protected with new varnish.


Katharine Keane is an editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

State mulling historic tax credit renewal

DALE LIESCH | March 2, 2016


When Mike Rogers Jr. and Steve Willard decided to move their construction company downtown, they helped to breathe new life into a more than 40-year-old building.

Rogers, of Rogers & Willard builders, said they chose the old Turner Todd Motor Co. (Buick) building at 455 St. Louis St. because of what it used to be.

“You could look at it and tell at one time it used to be a really good building,” he said. “You had to have vision to see it.”

With the help of state and federal historic tax credits their vision has been transformed into a modern-looking, 40,000-square-foot office complex with off-street parking.

“It took up almost all of a city block and allowed us to have a parking lot we control,” Rogers explained.

The state’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit, which has been both praised and criticized, made the roughly $5 million investment possible, Rogers said.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the tax credits,” Rogers said. “We probably would’ve stayed where we were.”

Legislative action
The state began offering a tax credit of up to 25 percent for the rehabilitation of historic commercial and residential properties in 2013. The law allowed for up to $20 million in credits per year, according to the Alabama Historical Commission website, meaning roughly $60 million worth of credits have been awarded for projects statewide in three years.

Under the current law the credits expired in 2015, but there are two legislative proposals — HB62 and SB230 — to extend the credits for an additional seven years.

The House version of the bill received a favorable report from the House Ways and Means Education Committee last week and will move on to the House floor. The House bill includes an amendment to suspend the credits in times when the budget is prorated or level funded, which is a cause for concern, according to Jacqulyn Kirkland, marketing and public relations manager for the Alabama Historical Commission.

“This amendment creates uncertainty concerning when the state would issue or honor credits, and it severely devalues the credits,” she wrote. “This could, in effect, cause bank loans to default and projects to result in bankruptcy.”

The Senate version is awaiting committee action.

Study: Historic renovation tax credit had massive impact on Alabama

- Brent Godwin

As lawmakers prepare to head to Montgomery for a session that could decide the future of the Alabama Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, a new study shows the tax credit has paid huge dividends for Alabama.

According to the study commissioned by the Alabama Historical Commission, the tax credit program is responsible for more than $384 million in private investment in the state since it was implemented in 2013. Projects like the renovation of the Pizitz, the Thomas Jefferson Tower and Redmont Hotel are all utilizing the credit in downtown Birmingham.

The study also shows that for every dollar of tax credit allocation the state invests in the program, $3.90 is returned over a 20-year period. The state is expected to break even on its investment of $60 million by 2019.

According to the study by Novogradac & Co., that figure was in line with the impacts generated by similar tax credits in other states.

Alabama's historic renovation tax credit program is set to expire after this year unless lawmakers extend it. This week's Cover Story will take an in-depth look at what's at stake.

The tax credit has been a catalyst for a number of multimillion-dollar renovations in downtown Birmingham, and many have said the Magic City's downtown revival could come to a screeching halt if lawmakers don't extend the credit.

The AHC, REV Birmingham, Birmingham Business Alliance and other proponents of the credit hope the study will help convince state legislators to extend the program, which is set to expire this year.

Original article can be found at



Birmingham leaders push to renew historic tax credit as redevelopment projects soar

- Lauren Walsh

A quick look around downtown Birmingham will show some pretty phenomenal architecture. It's part of the fiber of the city's past. It also can be part of the formula to its future.

Developers pumping new life into downtown's historic buildings attribute their success to Alabama's historic tax credit. For three years, developers in Birmingham could apply for the historic tax credit, which expires this year. Now, there's a major push from Birmingham leaders for the state legislature to renew the credit.

Bayer Properties' David Silverstein is using Alabama's historic tax credit to renovate the Pizitz building, which has sat vacant since the early 80's. He says the credit is making the Pizitz project possible.

"It has a beautiful terracitta façade with architectural elements that you normally don't see on a building and our goal was not to tear it down. Our goal was to preserve it," Silverstein told ABC 33/40.

Pizitz will open in October, with multifamily housing on top floors and retail and restaurants on the bottom.

It is one of 20 projects in Birmingham that have utilized the credit and one of 52 projects statewide.

"It is more complicated and more expensive to do a development of a historic structure," said Silverstein. "These projects that are in the urban areas, that are historic of nature really need the incentives to make them become reality. Look, we had to spend $70 million to achieve the credits. So, you don't just get the credits without spending the money."

For each of the three years, the state allowed $20 million in credits. In Birmingham, the credit has been used on projects like the Florentine Building and the Lyric Theater.

David Flemming, Executive Director of REV Birmingham, is urging lawmakers to renew the credit.

"It's a game changer for downtown and we're not done," said Flemming. "These are great projects that are going to inspire a lot more activity and vibrancy in downtown, but we need to also move out of downtown and we need this incentive to be around to keep the projects going downtown, but also throughout this historic city."

Flemming expects development to slow down in Birmingham if the credit is not renewed.

"Without this additional incentive, there's a potential that we could lose more of our historic fabric which people say over and over is one of the greatest assets of downtown Birmingham," said Flemming.

"$327 million statewide is being invested directly into projects and the state is only spending 60 million to get 327, so I think it's a great return," added Flemming.

Flemming tells ABC 33/40 developers are already lined up with projects hoping the tax credit is renewed.

One example would be phase two of the Pizitz Project. Bayer Properties would like to redevelop the adjacent building with office and retail space.

The decision on whether to renew the credit will be up to the state legislature when members return to Montgomery in February.

The Jefferson County delegation is on board with the plan. Senator Jabo Waggoner (R- Vestavia Hills) tells ABC 33/40 he plans to sponsor the bill in the Senate this year and he hopes he can get it passed.

Last year, the bill cleared the House but stalled in the Senate Education Trust Fund Committee. Senate ETF Committee Chairman Arthur Orr tells ABC 33/40 he does have some concerns about the credit. Orr says he's concerned about the credit being used to restore a parking garage in Birmingham. He adds that an economic impact study is being done now to aid lawmakers in the debate.


Link to original story.

Downtown development could slow if AL historical tax isn’t renewed

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Rick Journey

The new year could bring a setback for development in downtown Birmingham and other cities around the state.

For two years, cities have benefitted from the historic renovation tax credit. But it runs out later this year.

The Florentine was the first to benefit from the historic renovation tax credit. It's a great example of how the idea has helped in the city's renewal.

Supporters of the tax credit say if it's not renewed by lawmakers, development doesn't stop but will certainly slow down.

“The growth in the suburbs in many ways has helped fund Birmingham schools and the benefits we've derived from the historic tax credit and rise in property taxes has also benefitted the suburbs, it benefits Hoover, Vestavia, Trussville, Gardendale. We all benefit,” Rep. Jack Williams (R-Vestavia) said.

William supports extending the tax credit and warns if it ends, downtown development won't come to a halt, but will certainly slow down.

Lawmakers return for the regular session in February, but will hold budget hearings in a couple of weeks.

The picture painted in those discussions could give supporters of the tax credit an idea how big the challenge will be to extend this law.

Copyright 2015 WBRC. All rights reserved. 

Link to original story.