- The Vulcan
At fifty-six feet tall and weighing in at fifty tons, Birmingham’s Vulcan statue is the largest cast iron statue in the world (photo courtesy of MLK and The Vulcan Park and Museum)
A city in the heart of Alabama may not be the first place you’d look to find a fifty-ton, bare-bottomed statue of a Roman god, but that’s precisely where you’d find it. Commissioned over 110 years ago for the St. Louis World’s Fair, Birmingham’s statue of Vulcan, the classical god of fire and forge, was constructed to serve as the ambassador of the Magic City, a fifty-six-foot-tall calling card that informed the nation at large that Birmingham—now a major contender in the production of iron ore—had arrived. From blue ribbon feature to (slightly misassembled) mascot of the city’s fairgrounds, pickle-poster-holding prop to carefully preserved pride of Birmingham, the Vulcan statue has a history as interesting as the city over which it stands guard. Today, the Vulcan retains the title of the largest cast iron sculpture in the world, and, from its place of honor atop Red Mountain, is the best place in the city to catch a sunset Birmingham twinkle to life.
Vulcan Park and Museum celebrates the past, present, and future of the city of Birmingham (photo courtesy of Colin Peterson)
The smooth walls and art deco arches of the 18th Street overpass made the perfect canvas for the thousands of LEDs that make up Bill FitzGibbons’ LightRails (photo courtesy of Bill FitzGibbons)
If you can’t hide it, flaunt it. Such is the logic behind Birmingham’s award-winning LightRails, an art installation that took a city eyesore and transformed it into an improbably beautiful and celebrated work of art. Birmingham is a city built on industry, and though the railroad tracks that splice through its center are an important reminder of the city’s roots, they have, traditionally, done little for its aesthetic appeal. The 18th Street Underpass was no exception to this rule: though the Art deco viaduct was the only thing separating popular Railroad Park from the heart of downtown, it was generally a place to be avoided. Until, that is, artist Bill FitzGibbons saw in the smooth underside of the tunnel the perfect canvas upon which to splash a glowing spectrum of color. Using thousands of LED lights in a rainbow of hues, FitzGibbons lit up the space with brilliant bars of infinitely variable pattern and frequency, transforming what was once a blight into a favorite of residents and a must-see for anyone visiting the city.
In 2014, Bill FitzGibbons was honored with the CODAaward for LightRails, juried as the best design project for commissioned art in the Transportation category, an award that has hundreds of nominations and is given only once a year (photo courtesy of Bill FitzGibbons)
- Sloss Furnace
Today, Sloss Furnaces serves as a venue for festivals, concerts, and special events, as well as a site for exhibitions and workshops of metal arts (photo courtesy of Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark)
The skeletal form of an abandoned foundry may seem an odd monument to Southern resilience, yet Sloss Furnaces—a rust-steeped, five-acre sprawl of intricately webbed pipework, towering smokestacks, troughs, drums, pulleys, and serrated cogs—marks one of the South’s first post-Civil War challenges to Northern industrial might. Southerners had been made painfully aware of the shortcomings of an agrarian economy, and the years following the Civil War saw the Bible Belt turn to the gospel of industrialism. When a thick seam of iron ore, along with everything else needed to make steel and iron, was discovered within a thirty-mile radius of the Jones Valley, the city of Birmingham sprang from the ground and into the ring of iron production so quickly that it earned the nickname the “Magic City.” Riding on this high, Sloss Furnaces roared to life in 1882, producing over 24,000 tons of iron ore in its first year, and continuing to fuel Birmingham’s economy through two World Wars and the Great Depression. Though its fires were stoked for the last time in 1970, Sloss Furnace is now preserved as a historic site where metal-art workshops and exhibitions, festivals, concerts, and special events celebrate the rich history of Birmingham beneath the sprawling shadow of this sleeping giant.
Though Sloss Furnaces closed for production in 1970, the space was reopened as a museum in 1983, making it the only twentieth-century blast furnace in the United States being preserved and interpreted as an historic industrial site (photo courtesy of Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark)
- The Statues in Kelly Ingram Park
Though the graphic nature of some statues in Kelly Ingram Park may be unnerving, Birmingham understands that only by airing wounds will they heal (photo courtesy of Terry McCombs)
1963 was a dark year in Southern history. Violence blossomed incongruously against the backdrop of the Birmingham spring as the city played host to some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil Rights Movement: the mass beatings of freedom riders, the bombing of the 16th Street Church, and, of course, the Children’s Crusade, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last, desperate attempt to shake the iron grip of Birmingham’s segregation laws. Ranks of black children as young as six who lined up to march in protest were met by Birmingham’s Police Department with high-power water hoses, billy clubs, and snapping German Shepherds. Though it was surely not the means that King had in mind when he asked the children to march, it can be argued that this violence took him to his desired end: media coverage of children under attack took the fight for Civil Rights from the streets of Birmingham into the living rooms of America, marking a turning point in the national consciousness and, arguably, the catalyst that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The remarkable strength and courage of the children who fought in Birmingham are commemorated in the city’s Kelly Ingram Park, where vividly wrought sculptures serve as painfully accurate reminders of the price some are asked to pay for justice. A place of “remembrance and reconciliation,” the park serves as a reminder of how far we had gone, how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.
Life size statues of German Shepherds in Kelly Ingram Park seek to mimic the experience of the children who marched in Birmingham (photo courtesy of Andre Natta)