Historic Structures

Building Description Lovemans Department Store, Birmingham Alabama

The Loveman's building is a four story, 200' x 140' department store with a full retailing basement. The store is constructed utilizing a fireproof, reinforced concrete column, beam and slab system with structural bay dimensions 22' x 22' and floor to floor heights varying from 21 feet on the ground floor to 14 feet on the top floor. The 35' x 140' seven story, 1916 Annex building, which survived the 1934 fire, was also constructed with a reinforced concrete structural system. The two buildings combined extend 235' along 3rd Avenue North and 140' from the corner of 19th Street and 3rd Avenue North in a southernly direction along 19th Street to the alley. This building plan, which-is greater than one-quarter of a block, provides over 33,000 gross square feet per floor for five full levels, or over 165,000 gross square feet of retail commerical space.

The Loveman's store is clad in dimensionally cut Alabama limestone, punctuated by vertically oriented towers, fenestration, and decorated cast aluminum spandrel panels. The architecture of the store draws strong conceptual and design analogies from the composition of the original 1890 and 1899 retail block when viewed from the corner of 19th Street and 3rd Avenue North. The original building envelope (mass and height) and the position of the hooded pediments of the older retail block were formalized through architecural analogy in the design of the new Loveman's store. The towers in the new design and the pediments in the old design were centered above the primary entrances on both 19th Street and 3rd Avenue North. However, the faceted crystaline forms of the Art Deco towers of the later building in their pure form, are a restrained departure from the exuberant architectural quality of the original Victorian Romanesque revival cornice line and facades of the 1890 and 1899 buildings.

The decorative Art Deco window frames, screens, and spandrel panels displayed on the exterior of the Loveman's building are a foil to the massive "cubist character of the limestone block and towers which they adorn". The screened windows, doorways, canopies, and flagpoles present various focal points and opportunities for detail, shadow relief, and color. The contrast of exotic architectural materials, such as polished, cast, stainless steel and aluminum and granite, florentine marble and carrera glass is heightened when these materials are juxtaposed against the homogeneous mass and color of the planar limestone surfaces. The design of the exterior detailing in the cast aluminum screens, frames and spandrel panels, doorways, canopies, and flagpoles is representative of the free mixture of stylized floral and geometric patterns so popular in the mainstream of the Art Deco style.

The geometric patterning is prevalent in the detailing surrounding or incorporated into door and window screens, openings and canopies as well as the decorative octagonal clock faces on the corners of the building at the alley of 3rd Avenue and the 19th Street corner. A cast aluminum pattern representing stylized Willow trees and floral detail adorns the screen and spandrel panels in repetitive patterns associated with the vertical window groupings above the display windows. Each ground floor display window is shaded by an awning supported by folding cast aluminum bracket arms which allow the awning to be withdrawn completely into a blind pocket above each window. The storefront on the ground level of the building, therefore exhibits a very sleek, planar surface of polished glass. Aluminum, granite and marble frame the show windows on both the 19th Street and 3rd Avenue facades.

The interior Art Deco detailing in the Loveman's building included geometric patterns at the column capitals, linear cast aluminum handrails around the mezzanine and stairs and stylized floral patterns painted as cornices, borders and accents on the ground floor and mezzanine levels. A major feature of the ground floor of the Loveman T s building is a mezzanine level which extends along the alley wall and the party wall separating the Alabama Theatre from Loveman's. Most of the interior detailing of Loveman's, which are identified in early photographs, has been covered over or removed in subsequent remodel ings. However, some interior detailing around the column capitals on the ground floor, major store entrances, and some of the cast aluminum handrail extending around the mezzanine and down the stair to the ground floor still remain. In 1955, Loveman's was remodeled extensively on the interior. A part of this remodeling included the extension of escalators from the second floor to the fourth floor of the building in a scissors pattern. The remainer of the interior spaces in Loveman's were remodeled extensively to provide for changing retail markets and shopping patterns.

Following the disastrous fire on March 11, 1934, which destroyed the 1890 and 1899 Loveman, Joseph and Loeb buildings, the management of that company and the City Stores Company embarked on an accelerated rebuilding campaign to have the new department store ready for the 1935 Christmas season. The new four story building was designed to have the same form as the original 1890 and 1899 stores on that site. However, the internal arrangement of the new store substantially increased the useable retail floor space. The management stated that the emphasis for the new building design should be focused on the creation of a fresh merchandising image which also stressed solidarity and fire safety. The architects' response to the issue of fire safety, was to design a fully sprinklered, reinforced concrete, "fireproof" building structurally similar to the surviving 1916 Annex.

The exterior design and character of the Loveman's building is significant in that it exemplifies an architectural trend toward the modern merchandising requirements of flexible interior space, air-conditioning and artificial lighting. The windows and spandrel panels in the Loveman's building were employed by the architect as major figurative elements which he arranged as vertical groups of recessed panels. These window groups accentuate the entrance towers and planar store walls exaggerating their height by segmenting the otherwise horizontal building form into vertically oriented components. These recessed window groups were designed to light only the ancillary spaces, such as storerooms, dressing rooms, offices, and alteration rooms and were never intended to light or ventilate interior retailing areas. The trend to internal retailing, which commenced in the 1930's relied heavily on artificial lighting and air-conditioning. These technological advances eliminated the restrictions on window size and location in order to ensure proper ventilation and light. The operable window areas in the 1935 Loveman's building are limited and are indicative of future retailing trends to "windowless" walls in department store design. The form and design of the Loveman's building clearly reflects not only a change to the Art Deco architectural style, but also to changes in functional and design relationships as compared with earlier department stores, notably Pizitz built in 1926 and Newberry's built in 1912, prior to the application of air conditioning and lighting technology. The Loveman, Joseph and Loeb store was the first large department store in the State to be fully air-conditioned. The ground floor was illuminated by indirect incandescent lighting instead of the standard globe lights suspended by pendants from the ceiling. The Loveman, Joseph and Loeb store should be considered extremely significant in characterizing trends towards new functions and therefore, new forms for future retailing structures. It heralded a new age in retailing concepts and commercial building requirements which are still widely accepted today.

Other technological innovations associated with the Loveman's building are notable. A bank of six passenger elevators located along the alley side of the building provided the primary vertical circulation. Loveman's had the most advanced and largest grouping of passenger elevators in a retail commercial building in the State. The elevator system was complemented by an escalator located at the center of the floor plan which connected the first and second floors. This was the first installation of an escalator in a commercial building in the State of Alabama.