A Walking Tour of Five Points South
A walk through Five Points South in Birmingham takes you
around its history and turn of the century suburban development.
Five Points South is special in Birmingham because of the concentration, variety and quality of its historic buildings, most date between the 1890s and 1930 from the founding of this streetcar suburb to a time when its boom building years were over. Besides its fine houses, Five Points South saw the development of churches, schools and commercial properties, creating a neighborhood that was complete , architecturally interesting, commercially self sufficient and socially stimulating. It began as an independent town the Town of Highland in 1887 but national economic conditions shoved it into the arms of the larger city of Birmingham in 1893. Well supplied with street railway lines it was a classic "streetcar suburb" typical of those around the nation but unusual in eclectic mix of people,, buildings and activities. A walk through Five Points , then provides not only a look at the neighborhood's history but a chance to learn about early Birmingham and turn of the century suburban development.
Birmingham was founded in 1871 because its promoters could see that it was a prime location for industrial production; it was booming in the 1880s, but the proximity of the mills made the city dirty and dangerous. The South Highlands was a more desirable place for many people and by 1887 there were hundreds of people living in the vicinity of the Five Points Circle intersection. Of their buildings prior to 1893 only a dozen or so survive, such as the McCants House, that remind us of Highlands early reputation as one of Birmingham's most fashionable neighborhoods. Two landmark
churches remain from that period, St Mary's On the Highlands and the South Highland Presbyterian Church.
After annexation to Birmingham in 1893, public transportation continued to improve as
electric streetcars replaced the old horse cars and steam dummies. By 1907 when the last line was laid along 15th Street South, Five Points was primed for its greatest residential boom, which lasted for the next eight years (1908-1916).
Houses in Five Points( only a small sample of which are on the tour) provide a look at the architectural styles popular through out the country between 1880 and 1930, including the Queen Anne, Craftsman and Classical Revival. As the 20th Century un reeled, however new economic patterns and a more transient population created a need for an alternative to the house; the apartment building. Some of Birmingham's earliest apartments are here, such as the c. 1905 Fitzgerald Flats on 19th street and c. 1909 Levert Apartments on 20th Street. In 1907 the landmark Terrace court was built and in the1920s two more "skyscraper" buildings, the Lasalle and the Dulion appeared along the 11th Avenue.
Although small grocers, vendors and specialty shops were operating around the Five Points Circle as early as 1893, it was not until the 1920s that the heirs of Robert S. Munger who had lived in the Circle from 1893 to 1902, began the complete transition of the Circle from residential to commercial use by building three Five Point landmarks; the Spanish Stores, the fred Jenes Building and finally the Munger Building all with tenants designed to make the area self sufficient and appealing to residents and visitors alike. Two of these buildings are in the Art Deco style then in vogue in New
York and other major urban centers, giving this suburban district an atmosphere of sophistication that helped it become a thriving shopping area and sparked even more development including the city's first medical arts building in 1931.
Much of the appeal of Five Points was its eclectic social nature with residents ranging from the household servants to the occupants of
Nabab Hill (where Ramsay High school now stands). There was a wide range of social, economic, religious and ethnic population all living and working in close proximity to the Circle and the old Town of Highland . Depression and War, however, dealt a major blow to Five Points as to the entire city of Birmingham and subsequent migration to outlying suburbs left Five Points to inherit a reputation as a down -at -heels and bohemian center, interesting but passed over by the march of time.
Fortunately an appreciation of the historic qualities of Five points and a commitment of Birmingham's planners to revitalize the area began the restoration of the commercial district and the addition of Five Points South and its surrounding blocks to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Since then there have been ongoing changes and developments in Five Points and a return to its position as a popular living, shopping, and a recreational district, particularly influenced by the advent of superb restaurants. It is fortunate that so much of Five Points interesting history has been retained in its supply of houses, commercial buildings and churches from all the periods of its life.
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