Powell School has occupied the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and 24he Street North in central Birmingham since 1887. Unused and in constant disrepair for over 20 years, the distinctive red-brick Victorian structure faces an increasingly tight schedule in hopes of saving it from demolition.

Those hopes are being boosted by a trio of local developers who say they are committed to preserving and renovating the Powell School if a tenant or tenants can be identified. A critical step in that process came this week when Birmingham City Council’s Tourism and Economic Development Committee voted to recommend to the full council an action that will clear the way for a project to move forward. The issue is expected to be on the council’s agenda at its February 28 meeting.

“I’m optimistic,” said Councilman Darrell O’Quinn, a committee member and representative of the council district where the school is located. “Powell’s future has been on my radar for a long time, but the window is closing on saving a very historic building. Our action today contributes to the likelihood of that happening.”

The three-member Tourism and Economic Development Committee agreed to rescind an existing redevelopment agreement between the city and the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation, which has held title to the building since 2011, following a fire that extensively damaged the building’s interior. Despite placing Powell on its ‘Locations in Danger’ list, replacing the damaged roof and making efforts to find a buyer, the Trust has been unable to come up with a project that would ensure the building’s preservation.

Termination of the agreement will allow the Trust to sell the building, with an established buyer. A trio of Birmingham real estate firms – Harbert Realty Services, Stewart/Perry Company and Sloss Real Estate – have retained Powell for two years, pending action that would allow the group to earn an insurable interest, meaning it can acquire and secure the building. with the purpose of carrying out a project.

“We are approaching this with the primary goal of saving the building,” David R. Williams, president and CEO of Harbert Realty Services, said after this week’s meeting.

He noted that the three companies have extensive experience in historic preservation and restoration projects. “We understand its historical value and are committed to doing everything possible to preserve that history and legacy.”

Williams said his group already has a prospect that is “very interested” in occupying part or all of the restored building, pending an agreement on rental costs and the application of available federal and state tax credits. But, he added, to achieve the goal of saving the Powell School, time remains of the essence.

“Not to say this is the last chance,” Williams said, “but due to the degraded condition of the structure, we must act quickly to secure a tenant or tenants. If we can’t do that within the next six months, it will be difficult for us to continue to keep the building in a condition that allows for future use.”

The historical importance of both the Powell School and the site it occupies is unquestionable. The site has been dedicated to education since 1874, three years after Birmingham’s founding, when the city’s first public school opened as “a free school for white boys” in the four-room structure originally built there. That building was badly damaged by fire in 1886, when, given the city’s rapidly growing population, the current building was built to replace it.

The original school was known as “the Free School” (public education was a relative rarity at the time), but the new building was named in honor of James Powell. One of Birmingham’s founders and widely credited with suggesting the city’s name, Powell had contributed “a large sum” of money toward the construction of the original school. He was mayor at the time it was built and donated his salary for the use of the school.

Acclaimed among the most modern schools in the South at the time of its opening, Powell came to be considered “outdated” as early as the 1920s, but it continued to be used by the school system. Over the following decades, it survived a fire and numerous suggestions that it be torn down, remaining in use by Birmingham City Schools until 2002. Another fire occurred in January 2011, further damaging the deteriorating structure.

Powell School preservation advocates welcomed the latest development in the building’s long history. Among them was David Fleming, president and CEO of the nonprofit neighborhood revitalization and economic development organization REV Birmingham, who was at this week’s meeting.

“This is an important day,” Fleming said. “You can’t save something if you demolish it, and this gives us a chance to finally make sure it’s salvageable. We’re in the eleventh hour, but that’s often what it takes to focus attention on historically significant structures. This is an opportunity for the key players to come together and make sure that happens.”

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin is another voice in favor of preserving Powell.

“Powell School is not just a historic building,” Woodfin said. “It has a presence that needs to be maintained, which is why I applaud the Tourism and Economic Development Committee for taking steps to do so. If Powell can be saved, we must save him, and the city would love to be a part of that.”

(Courtesy of the Alabama News Center)

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