Driving east on Sixth Avenue South in Titusville toward downtown, the abandoned Marc Steel complex is on the left just before the railroad underpass which marks the entrance into Birmingham’s expansive Southside. This abandoned industrial site has teased my imagination for a long time. Marc Steel was an industrial steel fabricator from the late 19th Century, when steel was the backbone – figuratively and literally – of Birmingham and the surrounding area.
Perhaps it is because I spent a childhood in Birmingham when the steel mills were still in full operation that the rusting remnants of that time have an enduring imaginative pull for me. I keep an eye out for industrial decay that, for me, has the same power and dignity of ancient relics. I can imagine a time when these places had purpose, when the lives of the locals were dependent on them; I can remember a time when the night sky would blaze orange and gold as molten metal was poured at the foundries.
Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark is the grande dame of Birmingham industrial sites but the aesthetics of the Marc Steel structure – its silhouette, those massive windows, the rusting – have their own complex beauty. I understand that inside the Marc Steel buildings there is a trove of graffiti. Ideas are currently being solicited for renovation and the best uses for the property and the idea of affordable housing is being discussed. I wish them the best. The Marc Steel property cannot continue to deteriorate indefinitely; its restoration and renovation are essential. But, to me, it is magnificent in its decay (www.themarcsteel.com).
When Railroad Park opened in 2010 next to the railroad tracks that split the north side from the south side of Birmingham’s central city, there wasn’t much else happening in the immediate area. Regions Field, home of Barons baseball, came soon after and the Parkside area now teems with entertainment, business, and residential options in new and converted spaces. Railroad Park quickly earned its designation as “Birmingham’s Living Room” (www.railroadpark.org).
Among the more interesting recent additions to Parkside is a new Birmingham hub for Fetch Rewards. The rusty panels on the building’s facade create a striking patchwork on a contemporary structure. The design was an unexpected find in my passion for rust. The first time I happened to catch a glimpse of the building out of the corner of my eye, I remember thinking wait, what? and parking the car to examine the find.
Another addition to my inventory of Birmingham rust is a brand-new entertainment nook in Avondale, nestled – once again – next to railroad tracks just down the street from the main Avondale business district. Elysian Gardens is the vision of artist William Colburn Jr., whose metalwork and whimsical sculptures adorn the location. Colburn’s metal flowers are his best-known works; I received one of Colburn’s fierce Venus Flytraps as a present not that long ago. His patinated flora is generously placed throughout the comfortable outdoor space which houses a bar, two restaurant spaces, and a stage suitable for a variety of performances.
A particular charm of Elysian Gardens is that it enables its patrons to sit and wander among the sculpture. Colburn has fabricated butterfly-back chairs and barstools and, on a recent Sunday afternoon, casual visitors came, went, and stayed for a spell. If Railroad Park has become Birmingham’s living room, Elysian Gardens seems on the path to become a cozy family room for Avondale (www.elysiangardensbham.com).