The Thomas Jefferson is well known for having a rooftop zeppelin mooring mast. Builders of the hotel created a tower for what was believed to be the future of air travel. The never-used docking tower still remains atop the building. (Note: Wikipedia states that it is the last rooftop zeppelin mooring mast in the world. However, a reader commented that this statement is not true and that many other buildings still have mooring masts including the Intercontinental Chicago Hotel. I wonder where this claim on Wikipedia came from. Does anyone know?)
Crowning gem of Birmingham
“Hearlded as the crowning gem of Birmingham’s great, downtown hotel era, the Thomas Jefferson, as it was then known, went bankrupt before its completion in 1928. The hotel was a victim of the Great Depression from which it never fully recovered.”
Construction stared in 1926
Planned and developed by the Union Realty Company in November of 1925, the estimated cost was $1.5 million for the 19 story hotel. David O. Whilldin, a well known local architect with offices in both Tuscaloosa and downtown Birmingham was chosen for the project. Construction started in May of 1926 but was halted in April of 1927 when one of the chief project financiers failed. Work would be resumed in July of 1928 when a new holding company was formed. The hotel would open on September 7th, 1929 at a final cost of over $2.5 million. During its opening week, the hotel featured nightly banquets with dances showcasing an orchestra from New York.
Built next to the theater district
The Thomas Jefferson was built on the western end of downtown Birmingham next to the city’s theater district right at the time of the crash. The planners expected the downtown area to expand westward and built the hotel with the doors fronting 2nd Avenue North, but instead the city expanded northward. The famous and wealthy passed the hotel for the more elegant Tutwiler. Still, the hotel was magnificent with dark brown and intricate terra cotta adorning the ceiling and fist-sized heads of lions topping marble columns and attracted a fair number of famous guests.
Bear Bryant kept an apartment on the top floor
“In the 1970s, Paul “Bear” Bryant kept an apartment on the top floor. The 20th floor was also the home for years of radio station WATV.”
“The list of famous guests included”
- Calvin Coolidge
- Herbert Hoover
- Ray Charles
- Jerry Lee Lewis
- Pete Rose
- George Burns
- Mickey Rooney
- Ethel Merman
“The hotel featured an ornate marble lobby, a large ballroom, and a rooftop mooring mast intended for use by dirigibles. The ground floor incorporated space for six shops and the basement included a billiard room and barber shop. The ballroom and dining rooms on the second floor opened out onto roof terraces from which the main tower rose.”
Became the Cabana Hotel
In later years, the Thomas Jefferson was sold and known as the Cabana Hotel. By 1981, the Cabana was a second-rate, $200-a-month apartment building with fewer than 100 residents. The hotel was shut down on May 31, 1983, by city health officials after it was declared uninhabitable on account of “bad plumbing, insufficient lighting, some inoperative smoke detectors and failure to upgrade to city fire codes”
Then the Leer Tower
In 2005, the Leer Corporation of Modesto, California, announced a $20 million proposal to convert the building into upscale condominiums, to be known as the Leer Tower. That proposal was delayed by a dispute over control of the building and the owner’s inability to secure local financing. The property went into foreclosure in July 2008. Subsequently the property has fallen further into disrepair.
Part of revitalization projects in downtown Birmingham
In August 2013, the building and its annex were acquired by TJ Tower LLC, a group of investors from Little Rock, Arkansas and New Orleans including former professional basketball player Brian Beshara. The former hotel will be one of the first projects in Alabama to utilize new state and federal tax credits designed to spur redevelopment of historic structures. Announced plans call for mixed-use conversion into 100 apartments, ground floor restaurant and retail space, and event/entertainment space in the former dining room and ballroom. It is one of multiple revitalization projects occurring in downtown Birmingham, along with the renovation of the long-closed Lyric Theater and the nearby Pizitz Building.
Construction began on February 12, 2015 and we look forward to seeing these grand building returned to its glory.
- Sam Hodges, Birmingham Post-Herald, 7/15/1981
- Beverly Taylor, Birmingham News, 9/18/1987