Morris Avenue

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Morris Avenue in June 2005

Morris Avenue is a narrow, east-west avenue between 1st Avenue North and the Railroad Reservation. Because of its adjacency to railroad depots and services, it rapidly developed into an early commercial and warehouse district in Birmingham's early days. The avenue is named for Josiah Morris, a banker and one of the initial shareholders in the Elyton Land Company who proposed the name "Birmingham" for the new city.

Sections of Morris Avenue can be found between Center Street and 2nd Street North in Elyton, and for a short distance west of 41st Street North and between 42nd and 45th Streets in Avondale. The main section, however, is downtown, between 14th and 25th Streets. Of that section, the area east of 21st Street is the best-preserved late Victorian district in the city. The Jefferson County Historical Commission dedicated a historical marker with information about Josiah Morris on June 19, 1976.

Downtown section

Morris Avenue, c. 1911

By the late 1880s Morris Avenue was lined with three and four-story brick warehouses from 21st to 25th Streets.

The Louisville & Nashville Railroad claimed ownership of the section of Morris Avenue between 14th and 18th Streets, which had been used as a produce market and later for automobile parking. In 1969 the railroad blocked off the area to traffic, erecting makeshift barriers and signs saying "No admittance, private property". Leon Aland of the New Ideal department store led legal efforts to keep the street open to public use.

Entertainment district

Main article: Old Town Uptown
Rendering for "Old Town Uptown" by Bob Moody

In the mid 1960s the quaintness of the street, "another world" from the modern city, inspired a feature in The Birmingham News which concluded with "you might be in New Orleans". At the time the avenue was much quieter than it had been in its heyday, with peeling paint and rusting door hardware to attract the photographer's eye, but it was far from empty, still housing numerous produce warehouses and food brokerages, and at least one nightclub.

In the late 1960s, designer Bob Moody became interested in redeveloping Morris Avenue as a historically-themed entertainment and shopping district, similar to Gaslight Square in St Louis, Missouri or the newly-opened Underground Atlanta. With his watercolor sketches and the backing of several other downtown promoters, he interested property owners in the area in the concept. A Gas Lite Club on the 2000 block offered live entertainment in the early 1960s.

Over the next few years the City of Birmingham and the Alabama Legislature contributed support to the venture. It was designated as the state's first historic district and streetscaped with cobblestones and gas lighting. By the Fall of 1972 the first new businesses, such as Diamond Jim's, Oaks Street, Victoria Station, and the Show-Boat Lounge began opening, attracting both locals and tourists at lunchtime and on evenings and weekends.

Old Town Uptown, while popular, proved vulnerable to mismanagement and bad word-of mouth. A few businesses turned over after their initial investments were tapped out. When a visiting businessman was lured from the Show-Boat Lounge and later found dead in August 1977, the district's reputation took a major hit. The sensational crime has been blamed for crippling the viability of the fledgling entertainment district.

A few clubs, like Cobblestone and the Old Town Music Hall continued to draw late-night crowds into the 1980s.

Later development

Main article: Loft District

Over the next decades, the street's historic buildings were renovated, one-by-one, as professional offices and loft residences.

A large parking lot, accentuated with lighting, benches and planting islands, was installed on the south side of the avenue in 1988, supporting the new businesses moving in.

By the 1990s the area was at the center of the first residential loft development downtown and the district has evolved into a tightly-knit mixed use neighborhood. In 1994 jazz club On the Avenue moved from 4th Avenue North to the former Gatsby's location and Larry Levine opened Larry's Place in the train cars that most recently housed Zen.

A new $4.5 million parking deck was built in the late 1990s as the city's contribution to the renovation of the John A. Hand Building for the headquarters of The Bank of Birmingham. A wide pre-cast concrete arch bridges over Morris Avenue on the east side of 20th Street to connect the building to the parking deck. Morris is also bridged by the 21st, 22nd and 24th Street viaducts.

During The Bank's tenure, James A. Taylor placed a vintage red London telephone box at the northeast corner of the intersection. The relic was heavily damaged on April 26, 2006 and subsequently hauled away.

Notable locations

For an alphabetical list of locations, see the Morris Avenue category.

Center Street to 2nd Street

1600 block

1700 block

1800 block

1900 block

2000 block

  • South side
1923 ad for the Gilmore-Lee Produce Co..

2100 block

2200 block

2300 block

2400 block

2500 block

Avondale

Unknown location

References

External links