Tag Archives: Vulcan Statue

Alabama Marble

Sylacauga marble



Back when I thought I should at least feign an interest in the writing of Ayn Rand, I heard architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) utter the following line of dialogue to Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) in King Vidor’s overwrought film version of Rand’s The Fountainhead (1949):

“This is Alabama marble – very high grade, very hard to find.”

I watched The Fountainhead many years ago, and I suspect that quote was my first inkling of the quality of Alabama marble. It is usually referred to as “Sylacauga marble,” for the Talladega County town in which the vein of marble is focused. The seam is thirty-two miles long, 1.5 miles wide, 400 to 600 feet deep, runs from the Coosa River to near the town of Talladega and is the longest marble deposit in the world. 500 million years old and 98% calcium carbonate – Sylacauga marble is considered one of the purest and whitest in the world and is often compared to Italian Carrara.

Gantt’s Quarry

Edward Gantt was the first entrepreneur to develop marble quarries in the Sylacauga area in the 1830s. One of Gantt’s abandoned quarries is open for public view. At the Gantt’s Quarry Overlook, 10-ton blocks of marble line the viewing platform. White mining roads wind through the grey chasm and down to the greenish water filling the abandoned quarry floor.

Italian sculptor Giuseppi Moretti began to use Sylacauga marble while in Alabama designing Birmingham’s mammoth cast iron statue of Vulcan – Roman god of fire, metalwork, and the forge – for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Moretti and partners opened marble quarries around Sylacauga in the early 20th Century.

“Head of Christ” by Giuseppi Moretti

Moretti’s first art sculpture from Sylacauga marble was his Head of Christ, which was displayed in St. Louis in 1904 along with Vulcan. It is a sculpture for which Moretti claimed great pride and which travelled with him for the rest of his life. He expressed a wish that the Head of Christ would be displayed eternally in Alabama and it can be seen today at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s bust of Abraham Lincoln, on view in the U.S. Capitol, is carved from Sylacauga marble. Sylacauga marble is prominent in the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial, the United States Supreme Court Building, and other notable architecture and art throughout the United States.

More prosaic uses for marble include as a soil additive, as a whitening agent in paint and paper coating, and as an antacid (think Alka-Seltzer and Tums), among other things.

“Sylacauga Emerging” by Craigger Browne

Sylacauga marble is having a renaissance for artistic applications as evidenced in outdoor installations throughout downtown Sylacauga. Sylacauga Emerging by Alabama sculptor Craigger Browne is an impressive work in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex. It depicts a worker carving himself out of a block of marble. Nearby is Don Lawler’s Falling Star, commemorating the Hodges Meteorite, which crashed through a farmhouse roof outside Sylacauga in 1954, striking Ann Hodges, asleep on her couch.

If in the Sylacauga area, keep a watch for numerous examples of the pristine marble that is native to the region. Chances are, you’ve already seen it or used it in other places.

“Falling Star” by Don Lawler (foreground)

“Iron Butt”

IMG_1822   When I am asked “where are you from?” my automatic response is “Birmingham.” I was born in a military hospital at Fort Benning across the Chattahoochee River from Alabama in the final days of my father’s military service. But my parents are from Birmingham, both sets of grandparents lived there, and I moved there when I was a month old.

My father’s work frequently moved the family while I was growing up so I left Birmingham three times in my growing up years and moved back three times between birth and age 15. During all my years in Tuscaloosa at the University, I was less than an hour away and was in town frequently. I also had one enjoyable stint living in Birmingham as an adult for four years in the early ‘90s. If the right opportunity presented itself, I’d gladly move back.

I’ve lived away from Birmingham more than I’ve lived in Birmingham but it is always “home” to me. And those of us who call Birmingham “home” are a strangely loyal and proud bunch. The allure of the city is not always apparent to people who don’t know the place but I am always intrigued by the affectionate responses I get from displaced Birminghamians around the country.

When I was young my parents would talk about being young marrieds in Chicago in the early ‘50s – Dad was military and Mother worked for an insurance company – and running into people from Birmingham in Grant Park and other Chicago locales. The energy of the talk would escalate if the Birminghamians happened to be from Ensley, my dad’s old neighborhood and the place where he and Mother met.

When I was working in Texas, I met an older theatre volunteer who had been born and raised in Birmingham and her eyes would glisten as she fondly recalled growing up in the city. She had not returned since she got married and stranded in Texas 42 years earlier. When I was going home to Alabama for the holidays, she asked me to bring her back a six-pack of Buffalo Rock, a strong and spicy dark ginger ale that originated and is still made in Birmingham.

IMG_1807These memories are sparked by a visit to Vulcan Park this evening (www.visitvulcan.com). Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, is the symbol of Birmingham and the representation of the city’s industrial history. A 56 foot tall iron statue of Vulcan overlooks the city from a 123 foot tall stone pedestal atop Red Mountain. Vulcan atop his perch is visible from locations throughout the city and whenever I return to Birmingham I always look for my first glimpse of Vulcan from the interstate. Vulcan means “home” to me.

Vulcan made his debut as Birmingham’s exhibit in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The city was only 33 years old at that time and had already become the industrial center of the South. Civic leaders commissioned the colossus from sculptor Giuseppe Moretti and it was fabricated with iron from the Birmingham area. Vulcan was a popular attraction in St. Louis, winning a Grand Prize.

Vulcan is a burly, bearded guy standing next to his block and an anvil with a hammer in his left hand. In his right hand he holds a newly forged spear point aloft. He is naked except for a blacksmith’s apron. The apron partially covers him in front but his back is bare with buttocks exposed. Before a recent restoration, he was angled on his pedestal so that his back side was aimed toward Homewood, a suburb just over the mountain from Birmingham, and Vulcan was affectionately called “Moon over Homewood.” His current angle finds his back side aimed more toward the television stations that share the mountain with him and The Club, an exclusive private dining club that looms over the city like an embedded spaceship. I like the idea that he moons The Club. IMG_1831

On his return to Birmingham after the St. Louis Exposition, Vulcan was homeless for a while and was reassembled at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Five Points West. The original spear point had gone missing and Vulcan at the Fairgrounds became an advertising tool, holding aloft such things as an ice cream cone, a Coca Cola bottle, and a pickle sign.

In the 1930s the WPA built the park and pedestal on the mountain where Vulcan has resided ever since. Starting  after World War II and continuing through my childhood, Vulcan held aloft a torch that was a safety beacon. It burned green if there had been no traffic fatalities in the city and burned red for twenty-four hours after a local traffic fatality. It was a kitschy idea but as a young boy I would always check the torch color.

As a child I liked to be on Vulcan’s observation deck around sunset when the sky around the city would turn golden orange as molten iron was poured into blast furnaces.  All Birmingham knows that on the 4th of July “if you can see Vulcan, you can see the fireworks” and thousands gather around the city on both sides of Red Mountain to catch the annual Independence Day fireworks display. As a kid, we usually watched from a hill in front of the Belcher house in the western section on Bessemer Superhighway. IMG_1833

In the ‘70s the park had a major overhaul that resulted in a lot of the original character of the WPA-built park and pedestal being sacrificed. The observation deck near the top of the pedestal was enclosed so one still had sweeping views of the city but couldn’t look up at Vulcan. The beautiful stone of the pedestal was hidden by cladding.

Finally, in the late ‘90s, the Vulcan Park Foundation was founded and money was raised to remove and restore Vulcan to his original design, including the restored spear point in the uplifted hand, and to reclaim the 1930s beauty of the WPA’s stone work and design on the pedestal and grounds. Vulcan was back on his pedestal in 2003 and the park reopened to the public in 2004. Vulcan looks better than ever and the park is a beautiful place with a visitors center and a museum with permanent exhibits as well as changing ones. A multitude of informational displays and narratives are placed throughout the grounds and it is a unique and special place to learn about Birmingham’s vibrant and colorful industrial history. There are still remnants of mine entrances and trestle beds in the park and along the paths.

In my house, I have hanging a framed triptych of black and white photographs of Vulcan that were taken by a Birmingham photographer while the statue was in pieces fifteen years ago. There is a shot of the disembodied but still noble head, one of a sandaled foot, and one of Vulcan’s buttocks. The photographer simply labeled that last shot as “Iron Butt.”

Any proud Birmingham boy or girl should know exactly to whom that label refers.