Caldwell Hotel

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Caldwell Hotel logo.jpg
Drawing of the Caldwell Hotel from an 1893 menu card

The Caldwell Hotel, completed in 1889, was a six-story, 100-room hotel located on the northeast corner of 22nd Street and 1st Avenue North in downtown Birmingham. The hotel was destroyed in a fire on the evening of July 20, 1894.

The hotel was incorporated, with $100,000 in capital, on February 3, 1886 by officers of the Elyton Land Company. They named it for their president, Henry Caldwell, who agreed to allow his own residence to be moved to 4th Avenue North to clear the 150-foot by 150-foot lot.

Architect Edouard Sidel won a design competition judged by Caldwell and his fellow directors on March 28 of that year and was instructed to proceed immediately to prepare working plans and specifications, a process he said would take about four weeks. His watercolored rendering of the hotel's main elevation was displayed to the public in the Alabama State Bank building's 20th Street window.

Sidel's French Renaissance revival design for a five-story building featured a central gilded dome crowning a Mansard roof topped with an allegorical figure of "Industry". The corner of the building was enriched with a circular "observatory" with its own gilded turret roof topped with a flagpole, raised 150 feet from the ground. The exterior was of pressed brick brought from Philadelphia with ornamental window caps, brackets, pilasters and other ornament in buff-colored terra cotta and white store. Wrought iron balconies graced the second, third and fourth floors. A sixth floor was added to the design during its development.

The main entrance and separate "private" and "ladies' entranceways opened into a 34 by 36 foot lobby with 18 foot ceilings. Around the lobby, overseen from the office clerk's desk, were arrayed a cloak room, passenger and freight elevators, and passages to the reading rooms, bar, billiard hall and barber shop. A 30-foot wide grand staircase, made of "Alabama iron" dominated the room.

On the second floor, a 48 by 70 foot dining hall was adjoined by two parlors and a number of passenger rooms, used by those awaiting train connections and not requiring an overnight stay. The plan wrapped around a central courtyard to provide daylight to each of the hotel's 100 bed rooms. Each room was heated with steam radiators and the public areas illuminated by electric lights.

Henry M. Allen was hired to oversee construction of the hotel, at a projected cost of $250,000. Before the building was completed, the property was sold for a loss, with Dr Caldwell and John Boddie entering the sole bid of $54,849.82 and assuming the outstanding bond debt of $118,000. Immediately afterward, Caldwell ordered furnishings from a company in Grand Rapids, Michigan whose agent was on-hand, and made plans to open the doors as soon as possible. When it did open in 1889, the hotel's 165-foot height distinguished it as Alabama's second "high-rise" building (after the Moses Building, constructed in Montgomery in 1887). Caldwell bought out Boddie's share of the hotel on April 29, 1890.

Overseen by manager Ed Freeman, the Caldwell succeeded the Florence Hotel as the young city's most luxurious accommodations. The hotel's parlors and ballrooms hosted the annual balls of the Fortnight, Monogram and Cosmos Clubs as well as numerous other meetings and events. The hotel hosted a luncheon for President Benjamin Harrison in 1891.

View of 1st Avenue with the Caldwell in the distance
The Caldwell Hotel after the July 20, 1894 fire

In February 1893, the Caldwell served as headquarters for the Alabama team for the first Iron Bowl. A special menu prepared for the evening of February 22 offered "Consomme a la Tuscaloosa" alongside "Potage a l'Auburn" as a first course before "Baked Kikoph Trout", "Braized Quarter Back of Tennessee Lamb" and other such delicacies, followed up by "One-team-out-in-the-cold Sherbet".

A year later, the Caldwell played host for the proceedings of the 1894 Confederate Veterans Reunion, which drew more than 10,000 visitors to the city. The two-story dining room held a massive chandelier and the lobby boasted hand-carved furnishings and fine oil paintings, as well as a marble bust of Caldwell, placed in front of a gilt Alabama coat-of-arms. A salon under the hotel's gilded dome hosted frequent high-stakes poker games.

Despite claims that the brick-clad building was of "fireproof construction", a massive fire that broke out at the Stowers Furniture Company late in the evening of July 20 spread to the hotel, leaving only its brick walls standing as smoldering ruins the next morning. No lives were lost in the blaze, which was controlled during the night from spreading to the rest of the business district.

Following the demise of the Caldwell, the Morris Hotel, which had previously included office floors, was expanded into a full-service hotel. The ruined walls of the Caldwell remained standing until 1905, when the site was acquired by the Goodall-Brown Dry Goods Company for its offices and warehouse, recently renovated as the Goodall-Brown Lofts.

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