Days Gone By - stories from the past

Does the Thomas Jefferson Hotel really have the last rooftop zeppelin mooring mast in the world?

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.”

Thomas_Jefferson_Hotel 1949Thomas Jefferson Hotel April 4, 1949 photograph – Alfred C. Kelly collection Birmingham Public Library

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.

Hotel Thomas Jefferson 1937 (ADAH)Hotel Thomas Jefferson, Corner 2nd Ave. and 17th St., Birmingham, Ala Alabama’s Tallest Birmingham’s Newest Look for the Red Beacon The postmark date on the back of this postcard is March 25, 1937

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”

  1. Calvin Coolidge
  2. Herbert Hoover
  3. Ray Charles
  4. Jerry Lee Lewis
  5. Pete Rose
  6. George Burns
  7. Mickey Rooney
  8. 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.


  1. Sam Hodges, Birmingham Post-Herald, 7/15/1981
  2. Beverly Taylor, Birmingham News, 9/18/1987
  3. Wikipedia

FreeHearts: 2nd edition A Novel of Colonial America (Tapestry of Love Series Book 3) Inspired by true events, Col. John Washington (ancestor of President George Washington), Randall Revell, Tom Cottingham, Edmund Beauchamp ward off Indian attacks and conquer the wilds of Maryland’s Eastern shore in 17th century colonial America in this historical novel.

About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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  1. There is a future to this, in time when technology is so advanced

  2. Halley Cotton Sara Lartigue Jackson thought of you!

  3. Hate to be picky, but a blimp is basically an oblong balloon without much internal structure; what you are talking about there is a ‘rigid-airship’ or zeppelin, much bigger, lots of internal structure and huge, just saying!

    1. Thanks for the clarification.

    2. Thanks for the clarification. I removed the word blimp.

    3. A zeppelin also had the passenger areas inside of the shell. The gondola underneath was mainly the bridge or control booth with an observation area.

  4. It was used, there are pictures with 2 Zeps moored there.

    1. I’d love to see the pictures. Most articles state that mooring masts on buildings were never used and pictures of zeppelins were faked. There is a lot of confusing statements written about skyscraper mooring masts. This article about the Empire State building reveals the failure of the mooring masts.

    2. I’ll be very happy to see if I can find the photo I was referring to. I snagged it from Google so it should still be hiding there somewhere.

  5. I always wondered what that thing was.

  6. This was sooo interesting. Thanks for posting. I noted in the two photos that a ballroom was built on the second floor beside the hotel some years after the original construction. I did not know that “the Bear” kept an apartment on the top floor. Or that two presidents stayed there. My mom stayed here for several days in the 1950s while attending a training school.

  7. I think they removed it

  8. My great grandfather was a chef there back in the 20’s and 30’s.

  9. No ,what do you think that big tower on the Empire state building is?

  10. Chris Pickett leer cut half the mast off. Don’t worry it’s being refurbished to original historic condition.

    1. Haha I was looking at the wrong building! I was wondering if they were going to restore it. Do you know what is going in the leer tower?

    2. Yup. Apartments and then I believe they are using the first two floors as a venue space and maybe a restaurant.

  11. There are several buildings in the U.S. that have zeppelin moorings.

    The dome on top the Intercontinental Chicago Hotel is one I can think of off the top of my head.

    1. Thanks Scott. The original statement came from Wikipedia but I could not validate it so I changed the story title and included a note in the story.

  12. My mother and father spent their wedding night there in 1933, since they couldn’t afford a honeymoon.

  13. Christopher Flansburg

  14. The US Navy put us new recruits at the TJ overnight in route to San Diego Bootcamp March 1952. I was very favorably impressed…such grand accommodation was highly unusual to me even though we bunked dormitory style about 15 of us to a room….

  15. You know, I was just thinking the other day, “Man, I really wish I could find some place to park my zeppelin.” Thanks guys!

  16. I think the Empire State building still has the mast as well.

    1. The tower on the Empire State building was a stunt.

  17. Thank you so much for this story……..very interesting. I love history and especially of Alabama. I am really going to daily be looking forward to articles from “Alabama Pioneers”!!
    Please keep up this wonderful work!

  18. I am totally astonished that Alabama has something completely useless from the last century still hanging around.

  19. It’s a grand old building.

  20. Nichole Bentley Kathleen Engledow-Cooper

  21. I would love it if someone could find any contemporary (1926-1935) mention of it. The earliest I could ever find was quite recent. Old postcards and other sources always referred to it as a beacon. But it is such a strong urban legend that there should be some basis for it. My suspicion is that it is a good story that has been repeated often but with no particular documentation. It would be interesting to see some.

  22. Edna McWilliams. I had the info wrong, but this is what i was talking about.

  23. Very interesting! I had no idea of this history. Thanks!

  24. I was too upish==I stayed at the old Redmont

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