Days Gone By - stories from the past

East Lake Atheneum was girl’s school, an orphanage, Catholic offices & now a school again [old pics]


Private School for Young Ladies

East Lake Atheneum in Birmingham, Alabama was a former private seminary of learning for young ladies.

East Lake Atheneum ca. the 1890s (Birmingham Public Library)

East Lake Atheneum - girls school

It was founded by Dr. Solomon Palmer, for years a leading educator of the South, and at one-time state superintendent of education. Located at 4th Avenue South and 82nd Street, the land was donated by the East Lake Land Company.

The school was locally promoted by a number of public-spirited men of Birmingham and the community of East Lake, then a promising suburb, and by the East Lake Land Company. It was chartered by the legislature December 5, 1890.

Number 62 Trolley Car advertising opening of East Lake Atheneum ca. the 1890s (Birmingham Public Library)

Number 62 Trolley Car advertising opening of East Lake Atheneum

Trustees were from Howard College

Many of the school’s trustees served were also trustees of Howard College.

Its first board of trustees included Robert Jemison, Solomon Palmer, A. D. Smith, Dr. J. H. Phillips, W. H. Wood, S. L. Robertson, R. G. Hewitt, M. V. Henry, C. C. Jones, J. H. Finch, James Van Hoose, Henry H. Brown and James Wilson.

The charter declared its objects to be the “establishment, organization and maintenance of an institution of learning of high grade for the education of young women, in the arts, sciences, and practical industries.”

Steam heated building

The first session opened October 7, 1890, with an enrollment of 180 students. The main building, a large brick, and stone Romanesque-style classroom and dormitory building was completed in 1892 and 212 girls entered the school the next Fall. The stone was taken from a local quarry a mile away. The building was heated throughout by steam and had a chapel, recitation, dining and enough bedrooms to accommodate 150 to 200 pupils.

Ten to twelve experienced teachers taught preparatory, classical, scientific, normal, musical, art, elocution, stenography and industrial courses were offered.

In 1893, the school had to cause briefly due to the 1893 financial panic.

Dr. Palmer continued as its head until his death May 15, 1896. He was succeeded by Rev. J. B. Cumming, who served for two years, followed by Dr. W. S. Weissinger.

Became an orphanage in 1900

About 1900 the school closed, and the property passed into the hands of the Sisters of Charity of the Roman Catholic Church and they operated an orphanage there until 1971. The orphanage was called St. Thomas Home=on-Hill. When the orphanage closed the building was used for the offices of the Diocese of Birmingham.

East Lake Atheneum when it was an Orphans home in 1900 (Birmingham Public Library)

East Lake Atheneum when it was an Orphans home in 1900

Ossie Ware Mitchell Middle School in 2006

In 2001, the property was purchased by the Birmingham City Schools and a new school was built which opened as Ossie Ware Mitchell Middle School in 2006.


  1. Kce Child Welfare activities.
    References.—Catalogues, 1890-1896.
  2. History of Alabama and dictionary of Alabama biography, Volume 1 By Thomas McAdory Owen, Marie Bankhead Owen
  3. Riley, Benjamin Franklin, Alabama as it is: or The Immigrants and Capitalist’s Guide Book to Alabama, Brown Printing Company, State Printers and Binders, 1893



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  1. I never knew St. Thomas had this much history behind it. Mom will be interested in this.

  2. Wasnt there also an unwed home for young pregnant girls in Eastlake.

  3. My great great Aunt had 3 children there temporarily after her her husband deserted them. The 2 older ones escaped the fire, but the 6 month old baby died in the fire. So sad…

  4. When I was a boy we would sneak onto the grounds and talk to the girls that often policed the area….. It was a beautiful building…….the nuns could run quite fast in the long garb and habits…..I never got caught…….

  5. I love this whole area I spent every summer of my life in the East Lake Community . I recently went there just to look and was shocked , very sad that such a beautiful place is gone so far down , At first I thought I was in the wrong place but I found my uncles house and went to the park , very very sad .!!!!!

    1. Me too Elizabeth. I miss living there. A great place to grow up back in the day. I had a super slam childhood and much of it was in South East Lake and East Lake in general. It is going through a positive change but it is slow in developing.

    2. I’m glad and I hope it does gets positive change it was awesome growing up in that area and even after my son was born I continued to come in the summer he has a love for it as well I’m glad you commented thank you it’s nice to know that someone else saw or felt like me about East Lake. I will always visit Birmingham Angelo Denison Roberson

  6. I used to live near that place on 3rd and 82nd.

  7. My uncle lived at 11 south78thst How I still miss those days !!!!!

  8. I was born on Division Avenue across from the fire station (#19). My brother and I use to beg our parents to go to the orphanage and adopt us a baby. ❤

  9. I have been looking through my Grandmother and Great Aunt’s photos. I knew they were raised in an orphanage in Birmingham and found news paper clippings about my Aunt (entered Army 1941) stating she had graduated from Blessed Sacrament Academy and nursing program at Erlanger. Was St. Thomas the only orphanage in Birmingham in the 30s?

  10. <3 Hi…. I have no idea how I was tagged with this post…I have tried to untag myself from it, but no luck so far. Pretty neat history article there though 😀

  11. I too grew up in East Lake. It was a fabulous community. I walked past the Orphanage once a week walking home from my piano lesson. There was supposed to be a spiral tube for exiting the upper floors in case of fire.

    Does anyone remember the “Dinky” streetcar, and Brooks Drugstore on the corner of 81st St. and Rugby Ave.? We ran and played all over the mountain above 9th Ave. and 81st St. and up to the fire tower! Fond memories.

  12. I would like to know if there is a place to contact to find out when my father and aunt were in attendance at the orphanage. I know they were there when the 1910 census was taken. She was there in1914; he was gone by 1914.

    His name is William A. Baldauf, born June 11, 1900
    Her name is Cleopha A. Baldauf, born June 3, 1903

  13. The last photo is often mistaken due to the mislabeling. It’s actually Howard College – East Lake Campus.

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