By Sandra Nickel

In celebration of National Preservation Month, Landmarks Foundation on May 1 sponsored a tour of two firehouses that have been repurposed as private residences:  one just beginning to be renovated in Cottage Hill and one breathtakingly restored in the Garden District. The success of that tour got me to thinking about the 2010 preservation theme, “Old is the New Green,” and how it has played out in our beloved Midtown and adjacent areas.

Montgomery's original "big box" retailer

Currently the “hot ticket,” the Alley downtown contains former warehouses transformed into restaurants, bars, a banquet facility, retail shops and snazzy loft apartments. On the outskirts of downtown, entrepreneur Jean Cillie has repurposed the historic Sayre Street School into a home for her multiple businesses:  florist, gifts, catering and a marvelous site for receptions and such.

From the Atlanta Highway all the way south along Ann Street to East Fifth Street, little cottages and bungalows have become thriving business of various types. And speaking of repurposed houses, I can think of at least two successful medical practices in Midtown who call a house their professional home: Frank Gogan, M.D., on Woodley Road; and Montgomery Veterinary Associates on Carter Hill. El Rey Burrito Lounge was an old house, as were 1048 Jazz & Blues and Capitol Book and News — three popular Cloverdale businesses within sight of one another.

Then there are the service stations repurposed:  Sinclair’s Restaurant, Parker Smith Cleaners,  Richardson’s Pharmacy and the office of Dr. Norman Walton, dermatologist.  Those are the ones I can identify — you may be aware of others.

Even small-scale older commercial buildings seem to be able to “bend and flex” with the needs and tastes of the market. Tang’s on Cloverdale Road started life as a convenience store. Stonehenge on Fairview has been variously a restaurant, a flower shop, and an art gallery, not once, but twice. Around the corner on Boultier, Lynn’s Salon was the rear part of the Cloverdale Post Office.  And Sarah Howard Stone’s building began as the Cloverdale city jail!

Small scale seems to be the key. Building at a large scale doesn’t have a good history in this part of town. Montgomery’s original “big box store,” the long-vacant Sears store at South Court and Fairview sits forlorn and abandoned, much of its sea of asphalt parking sold off to the Holt Street Memorial Baptist Church to the north. The old Sears Automotive Store, repurposed as a State Farmers’ Market, struggles valiantly to find its audience.

You don’t have to drive very far on any of the bypasses to see many more examples of big, ugly, empty stores. And how could I not mention Montgomery Mall?  The City promises that the space will one day see a new use, but the sheer size of the project has caused the property to languish for many years now. Shopping centers of smaller scale like Eastbrook have found new life. And even Normandale has managed to keep its head above water.

It seems to me that it’s pretty clear:  Bigger is very, very often not better.  And new may not be the answer, either. It’s a truth that has brought together the likes of environmentalists and historic preservationists (like me and those who love our old buildings and old neighborhoods). So as I sit here in my Fairview Avenue office and look over my shoulder at the area that used to be the soda fountain for the Cloverdale Pharmacy, I hope you’ll join me in my new mantra:  Reduce…reuse…recycle!

Sandra Nickel has been listing and selling residential real estate for over 29 years, most with an intense focus on Montgomery’s Midtown neighborhoods. Sandra serves on the Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless, the Cloverdale Business Coalition, Historic Southview, the Volunteer and Information Center, Landmarks Foundation and her own neighborhood Garden District Preservation Association.


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Filed under Historic preservation, Municipal business

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