Vestavia (estate)

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Postcard photo of the Vestavia estate

Vestavia was a Roman-inspired estate constructed by George Ward on the summit of Shades Mountain.

During one of his trips to Italy, Ward purchased a souvenir model of what was then called a "Temple of Vesta", but is now known as the Temple of Hercules Victor, a 2nd century B.C. peripteros-style structure in the Forum Boarium in Rome. Like that temple, Ward's "Vestavia" consists of a cylindrical building with twenty columns encircling it. The entablature and upper portion of the inner cella of the original had fallen into ruin before the 12th century. The ruin was capped with a conical roof bearing directly on the columns and on brick extensions of the broken walls to enclose a church, called Santo Stefano alle Carozze (St Stephen of the Carriages). It was rededicated in the 17th century as Santa Maria del Sole (St Mary of the Sun).

1880s photo of the "Temple of Vesta"

Ward's model would have been a speculative reconstruction of the original Roman temple. Ward's architect, William Leslie Welton, used simplified Doric-style capitals on the columns and uncoursed sandstone instead of dressed marble for the walls. The entablature incorporated molded medallions and swags of a type popular for 18th century interiors. The basement floor was divided into a kitchen, a large dining room and servants' quarters. Ward decorated the curving wall with postcard reproductions of paintings form the Louvre.

The main floor, encircled by a porch, was an unbroken 26-foot diameter circular room which Ward used as a living room and library. A circular stair accessed Ward's private suite, with a small bath and closet behind partitions. Clerestory windows in a raised part of the roof provided natural light. Stone fireplaces were built into the thickness of the outside wall.

Aerial view of the estate

Ward also built elaborate gardens next to the house, including carved hedges, ponds, statuary, and miniature temple-style houses for three dogs on the property. The focal point for the gardens was the Sibyl Temple, a domed garden gazebo of the monopteros style. The temple and its hillside base were designed by the firm of Miller and Martin, and completed in 1929. The design of the concrete structure seems to have several influences. The siting was probably inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli (sometimes associated with the Tiburtine Sibyl). The domed roof may be based on speculative reconstructions of circular temples. The eight fluted columns have capitals resembling those on the Roman "Tower of the Winds" in Athens.

Vestavia became one of Birmingham's best-known attractions, visible from the Montgomery Highway and depicted on postcards. Ward held numerous garden parties there, where servants would dress as Roman soldiers and guests would come wearing togas. Local residents would also drive near the home, and Ward occasionally had public tours of his estate. Harpers magazine editor George Leighton described one such occasion in his 1937 study of Birmingham:

In the afternoon, over beyond Red Mountain which walls in the sprawling city, a local capitalist has opened his grounds to visitors. His mansion, built in imitation of a Roman temple, is cylindrical in shape, made of bits of ore cemented together. By the steps of the mansion stand two black servants in white jackets. One has a felt hat under his arm, the other carries a cap in his hand. Each has pinned to his jacket a green-felt label embroidered in yellow with the Roman standard, the letters SPQR, and his name; Lucullus for one, Caius Cassius for the other. Under a tree is an elaborate sort of Roman throne, tinted green and bronze. Above, swinging from a branch, is a radio concealed in a bird house. Nearby are two dog houses, built like miniature Parthenons, with classic porticoes and tiny pillars. One is labelled Villa Scipio. There is a pool filled with celluloid swans and miniature galleons and schooners. Scattered about are more benches, urns, and painted-plaster sculptures. Among the shrubs and pink-rose hedges trail a procession of men and women, marveling at the splendors, but tired and oppressed by the overpowering heat. Toward sundown the crowd thins out; the Fords and Chevrolets go crossing down the hill.

Lynn Reeves reported later that "Lucullus" was the name given to the cook, "Cataline" to the chauffeur, and "Pompey" and "Marcellus" to the gardeners. Plantings included a bower of cypress, laurel, and chinaberry trees and a pond with Egyptian lotus, lillies, irises and orchids. When Ward was receiving guests, he lit a green-colored beacon.


Interior murals in the Vestavia tearoom

Ward died in 1940. He had intended for the Sibyl Temple to serve as his mausoleum, with a vault constructed into its foundations. However, Jefferson County law prevented him from being buried on the grounds, and he was interred at Elmwood Cemetery instead.

A codicil appended to Ward's will, dated April 13, 1940, stipulated that the 10-acre estate be given to Jefferson County or the city of Birmingham as a public park. However because his debts exceeded his assets, the executors of the estate listed it for sale at about $30,000. It went unsold for several years, and fell into disrepair. In 1947 it was purchased by developer Charles Byrd who opened a restaurant in the building, which he called the Vestavia Roman Rooms as an attraction for the new residential subdivision of Vestavia Hills.

Menu for the Vestavia Roman Rooms

Byrd hired renowned church architect and decorator Viggo F. E. Rambusch to assist local architect Charles Snook with plans for the restoration of the estate in 1948. The upstairs bedroom suite was remade into a recreated "altar room" with new interior murals to match the artwork found in the Roman original. Young socialites posed for the robe-clad figures in the 88-foot by 13-foot work executed by Frances O'Brien. A larger kitchen and banqueting room was added on to the basement. The restaurant served steaks and seafood in the evenings and soups and sandwiches at lunch. Patrons were allowed to bring their own bottles of wine, paying a nominal corkage fee.

A chandelier and benches were removed from the Sibyl Temple in the garden during those renovations.

Demolition and relocation of Sibyl Temple

Vestavia Hills seal.gif
Demolition of the temple in 1971

The suburban City of Vestavia Hills was incorporated in 1950, using a drawing of the Estate on its official seal. On March 4, 1958 the newly-formed Vestavia Hills Baptist Church purchased the property of the estate and moved its worship services from the Vestavia City Hall to the former banqueting room, raising the old dance floor for the pulpit and installing the choir in the former bandstand. A former hothouse was converted into a baptistry and former storage and utility rooms added by Byrd were enlarged into nurseries. The original rooms of the house and the gatehouse were used for Sunday School classes and office space. Pastor John Wiley observed that his congregation was repeating a pattern established by the early church, which made churches of former pagan temples in the Roman empire.

View of the church and education building in the 1960s

In a late 1950s brochure, the church acknowledged the need for expansion: "We plan to erect a first building for our educational activities. Later we shall build a new sanctuary. The original structure shall be maintained for its beauty and historical association." An $800,000 fund-raising campaign was started in 1962, with the idea that four new buildings would be put up around the temple. During that campaign, it was estimated that an additional $120,000 would be needed to relocate utilities and repair the 1925 structure. By 1968 the church revised its building plan to include the demolition of Ward's former home.

The Women's Civic Club of Birmingham, the Women's Committee of 100 and the Women's Chamber of Commerce joined in opposing the demolition plans and wrote and telephoned area leaders to plea for its preservation. The Alabama Historical Commission backed their efforts in 1969. The protests failed, however, and the the congregation voted to proceed with demolition in 1970. The statuary, kitchenwares and other trappings were sold at public auction, during which visitors had a last opportunity to explore the deteriorating house, which was demolished in April 1971.

The church donated the smaller Sibyl Temple to the Vestavia Hills Garden Club, which moved it to its current location on the mountain at Highway 31. The Temple serves as a symbol for the city of Vestavia Hills, marking the northern entrance into the city, while the main estate building still appears on the city's official seal.