"Great Temple of Travel" Book Review
by Railroad Historian David Lester
(PUBLISHER'S NOTE: We are pleased to publish the following advance review of "Great Temple of Travel" contributed by railroad historian and journalist David Lester of Atlanta, Georgia. David is a member of the Editorial Board of Railroad History, the flagship journal of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society).
The demolition of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 marked the beginning of the historic preservation movement in America. While there was some opposition to its destruction in the early 1960s, the Grand Lady finally succumbed to the wrecking ball, much to the horror of New Yorkers and others in the United States and around the world. In its wake, historic preservation in America was solidified by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which celebrates its 50th Anniversary in 2016. The Act is responsible for many architecturally beautiful and historic buildings still standing in America today.
While the historic preservation movement was thriving in parts of the country, it was slow in making its way to the South. Indeed, even as late as 1974, developers and preservation interests in Atlanta were struggling with a plan to demolish the city’s famous Fox Theatre, which was finally saved a year later.
Many of the South’s remarkable railroad passenger stations were not as fortunate. The late 1960s and early '70s were particularly rough years, as stations that were once considered the pride of their cities fell like dominoes. The New South was growing, and boosters of the changing region adopted a strong “out with the old, in with the new” approach to urban development, leaving no time to mourn the loss of old, dilapidated railroad stations.
Birmingham Terminal Station was among the southeastern stations destroyed during those years. Designed by noted architect P. Thornton Mayre, who had also designed stations for Atlanta and Mobile, Alabama, Birmingham Terminal Station was considered by many to be Mayre’s best work. The station opened in 1909, and was part of Birmingham life for sixty years.
The loss of these stations still stings today, nearly a half century later. Particularly disappointing, though, is the lack of documentation of the stations, such as architectural drawings, notes on how the stations operated, photographs and other material, much less books about the stations which showcase this material. While one or two southern stations have been the subjects of a book, none has received the first-class treatment Birmingham Terminal has with the publication of Marvin Clemons’ new book, "Great Temple of Travel - A Pictorial History of Birmingham Terminal Station, 1909-1969." Clemons co-authored the award-winning "Birmingham Rails, The Last Golden Era: From World War II to Amtrak" with retired CSX resident vice president Lyle Key in 2007. Key has written a foreword for the new book.
While spending much of his life in Birmingham, and having worked as an operator-towerman at Birmingham Terminal, and then at Atlanta Terminal Station before being called to active military duty, Clemons is very well qualified to write the history of Birmingham Terminal.
The "Great Temple of Travel" is billed as a pictorial history, yet there are several pages of informative text at the beginning of each chapter. In addition, many of the drawings and photographs have extended captions, providing context and details of the illustrations. Clemons begins the story with the development of passenger railroads in Birmingham and the formation of the Birmingham Terminal Company. Next follows a detailed chapter on the design and construction of the station, with an extended excerpt from architect Mayre’s essay for the July 14, 1909 edition of The American Architect about his work on the station.
Chapters four and five reflect Clemons’ intimate knowledge of the terminal's operation, including the routes connecting Birmingham with the rest of the country, along with details on each railroad's passenger trains that called at the station. A special treat is an aerial photograph showing the different passenger train routes to the terminal and the station's facilities, with “callout” boxes identifying multiple locations in the photograph on page 30.
Chapter six chronicles the final years of the station, including a much-needed $500,000 facelift in 1947. The remaining 22 years witnessed a gradual decline in the station’s condition and the number of trains serving it. The final pages in the chapter contain images of the station's final days and dramatic scenes of its demolition.
Concluding on a positive note, chapter seven focuses on a wonderful last hurrah for passenger service on Southern Railway, the Southern Crescent, which served Birmingham. This train was Southern president W. Graham Claytor, Jr.’s answer to the formation of Amtrak in 1971, when railroads could turn their passenger operations over to the new quasi-government entity, or continue to run them for five more years. The train provided daily service between New York and New Orleans, with specially painted E8 locomotives handling the train from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. Sadly, the daily service was cut back to Atlanta in 1975, and the train itself was turned over to Amtrak on February 1, 1979.
"Great Temple of Travel" is a treasure. In addition to informative text and detailed captions, the book is filled with wonderful black & white and color photographs by renowned photographers Frank Ardrey, Parker Lamb and others. Other treats include several black & white photographs that have been “colorized” by digital artist Tom Alderman. The photograph of Southern Railway Ps-4 steam locomotive #6691 on page 46, colorized by Alderman, is especially striking.
Rare architectural drawings, colorful route maps and timetables for the railroads and trains serving Birmingham, along with period advertising round out the visual interpretation of the station. Finally, a key highlight of the book is a series of magnificent black & white interior photographs of the station made by noted railroad journalist Don Phillips in 1968. While material on southeastern railroad stations is rare, high-quality interior photographs of them are almost non-existent. These images capture the architectural beauty of the station’s thoughtful design from a different perspective.
This book is highly recommended for all who study railroading and railroad history. "Great Temple of Travel" offers something for the passenger train historian, the passenger station historian, industrial archeologist, and both steam and diesel locomotive historians, as well as a general audience with an interest in railroads. And, if you happen to live in Birmingham, or have any recollection of Terminal Station, the book is a must.
-- David Lester, Atlanta, GA