Linn Park

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This article is about the current downtown park. For the first park in Birmingham, see Linn's Park. There is also a Lynn Park in East Lake.
Linn Park in 2006

Charles Linn Park (formerly Central Park, Capitol Park, and Woodrow Wilson Park) anchors the municipal center of downtown Birmingham. It is bounded by 20th Street North and the Birmingham City Hall to the west, Park Place to the south, 8th Avenue North, with Boutwell Auditorium and the Birmingham Museum of Art to the north, and the Linn-Henley Research Library and the Jefferson County Courthouse to the east.

As Birmingham's primary civic space, Linn Park contains numerous monuments and memorials, and hosts several public events such as the Birmingham Christmas tree lighting ceremony, the Magic City Art Connection, Magic City Blues Fest and other gatherings. It was also the home of the City Stages music festival held from 1989 to 2009.

History

Capitol Park with the 1870s Alabama Mineral Exposition Building, seen in Henry Wellge's 1885 Bird's Eye view of Birmingham

The site was one of three parks included in the Elyton Land Company's original plans for Birmingham, as drafted by William Barker. Labeled "Park" on the original plat, it came to be called "Central Park" as it crowned the central spine of 20th Street and lay midway between "East Park" (now Marconi Park) and "West Park" (now Kelly Ingram Park).

On February 21, 1883 the Elyton Company handed over the park's deed to Mayor A. O. Lane on the condition that the city reimburse the company for the cost of a newly-installed iron fence and for the costs associated with the conveyance, fund public improvements to the property immediately, and agree to relinquish the site to the State should the city succeed in having the capital moved to Birmingham from Montgomery.

In 1886 James Powell inserted the name "Capitol Park" into a map being produced by Beers, Ellis and Company for the "Atlas of the City of Birmingham and Suburbs". The map, published in 1887, showed a conjectured T-shaped building just south of the park's center as a stand-in for a future capitol building. Though Governor Joseph Johnston briefly conducted state business from a rented store in the city during a yellow fever outbreak in Montgomery, no other steps toward relocating the capital from Montgomery were ever accomplished.

By the time the Beers map was printed, the lots surrounding the park were built up with large fashionable houses, many in the ornate and complex Queen Anne style with effusions of brightly-painted wood porches, balconies, turrets, oriels, gables and bays. A large cast-iron fountain, donated to the city in the 1880s by T. L. Hudgins, was moved to the park in 1891. An obelisk-style Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument was erected between 1894 and 1905 at the park's southern end. In 1904 and 1908 two monuments sculpted by GIuseppi Moretti were dedicated at Capitol Park, the first to physician William Elias B. Davis and the second to school teacher Mary Cahalan. The city constructed various curvilinear sidewalks connecting to those points of interest.

The rather haphazard result was described thus by visitor Julian Street in 1917:

"[N]ot far from the majestic Tutwiler Hotel, and the imposing apartment building called the Ridgely, the front of which occupies a full block, is a park so ill kept that it would be a disgrace to the city but for the obvious fact that the city is growing and wide-awake, and will, of course, attend to the park when it can find the time. Here are, I believe, the only public monuments Birmingham contains. One is a Confederate monument in the form of an obelisk, and the other two are statues erected in memory of Mary A. Cahalan, for many years principal of the Powell School, and of William Elias B. Davis, a distinguished surgeon. Workers in these fields are too seldom honored in this way, and the spirit which prompted the erection of these monuments is particularly creditable; sad to say, however, both effigies are wretchedly placed and are in themselves exceedingly poor things. Art is something, indeed, about which Birmingham has much to learn.

On December 3, 1918 the park was renamed for Woodrow Wilson, then in his second term as President and the spokesman of the terms of peace following World War I. The honor was likely bestowed in combined admiration for his handling of the war and its conclusion, as well as for his Democratic party alliegiance. Specifically he supported the Southern Democrats who were increasingly concerned about Federal interference in the enforcement of Jim Crow laws requiring racial segregation. The Commisison then in power was headed by nativist Nathaniel Barrett, who rode the support of the "True Americans" into office in 1917.

The "City Plan of Birmingham", commissioned from Warren Manning in 1914 by George Ward's City Commission, was finally published in 1919. The plan, which was never adopted, did include a "Civic Center Memorial" scheme, largely the work of local associate Frank Hartley Anderson. The "City Beautiful"-type proposal, like others inspired by the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, imagined a group of neo-classical buildings in a heroic scale arrayed symmetrically around the park's open space. Manning, himself, was skeptical of the civic center idea. Nevertheless, it was published alongside his comprehensive regional plan, and was perhaps the most nearly-realized of the plan's recommendations.

Anderson, working with local architects William Warren and Eugene Knight, elaborated on the Civic Center idea with a plan published in the Birmingham News in 1921. Perhaps betraying the interests of Robert Jemison, Jr, the plan placed the 1913 Ridgely Apartments at a prominent corner of the park, which would be extended to 6th Avenue North. The north end of the park would house a City Hall and Court House, with a massive 450-foot "Memorial Tower" occupying a "Court D'Honneur" between them. The park itself was indicated with parterres and automobile lots, with a 110-foot flagpole in the center and the existing Confederate monument pushed southward to anchor its southern end. Hill Ferguson, then an associate of Jemison's, pushed hard for the realization of the plan and succeeded in securing the endorsements of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and the Birmingham Real Estate Exchange. He was also successful in lobbying the city to purchase property around the park.

The publication of the Manning plan coincided with the Chamber of Commerce's proposal for a Municipal Auditorium. A bond sale for the purpose of building such a structure passed in 1918. By the time construction began in 1924 a site at the northwestern corner of Wilson Park had been selected and secured. A World War I memorial, donated to the American Legion, Birmingham Post No. 1 by the city's Greek-American citizens, was displayed prominently at the front entrance.

With the auditorium under construction, a revised Civic Center plan, attributed to Mel Drennen and Erskine Ramsay and probably delineated by William Welton, appeared in the September 28, 1924 edition of the Birmingham News. This plan indicated the auditorium site and was the first to show the proposed locations for the Birmingham Public Library, Jefferson County Courthouse, and Birmingham City Hall as they were effected in 1927, 1931 and 1950, respectively. The library board had hoped to build closer to the center of the park and only reluctantly accepted relegation to a corner after the Olmsted Brothers, then engaged in a plan for A Park System for Birmingham, ruled in favor of preserving the open space. A compromise solution, requiring the abandonment of East 20th Street, was accepted. The specific sites indicated for an armory, museum, art gallery, and school administration building were not used, although the Birmingham Museum of Art (1959) and Birmingham Board of Education Building (1965) were constructed later on other sites facing the park.

Watercolor by Bob Moody for the 1980s renovation of Linn Park

Along with the construction of the Courthouse, landscape architect William Kessler provided designs for improvements to the park which were executed by Works Progress Administration crews. Kessler's scheme introduced broad axial paths and reflecting pools dividing the park into quadrants. A Zero mile marker was placed in the park, as well.

In 1963 a proposal for a "Venus fountain" was made, but never realized.

In 1982 the "Friends of Woodrow Wilson Park" began raising funds for renovations and improvements in the park. Landscape architects Nimrod Long & Associates preserved and enhanced Kessler's axial scheme with a new central fountain, pavements, benches, steps, low walls, and a metal gazebo. The $2.5 million cost for improvements was split between private donations and public funds. Brasfield & Gorrie served as general contractor. When the park was rededicated on October 4, 1988, it was renamed again to honor Charles Linn. Linn was a pioneer industrialist and banker, who created the first landscaped park in the city and promoted the planting of trees to beautify 20th Street.

A 2011 rally at Linn Park opposing the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act

Timeline

Gallery

References

External links

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