As America was emerging from the Great Depression, Greyhound Lines Inc. hired an architect able to express in his building design the sleek aerodynamics of Greyhound buses. From 1937-1958, W. S. Arrasmith designed many of the nation’s Streamline Moderne-style Greyhound bus stations including Birmingham’s in 1952.
Many Arrasmith-designed bus depots have been demolished, but thankfully Birmingham’s was saved and is being meticulously restored by Williams Blackstock Architects and Stewart Perry Construction Co. as contractor. The historic Greyhound Bus Depot is in the Birmingham Central Business District near Linn Park and City Hall. The station was in use until the late 2000s when Greyhound relocated. Birmingham-based Capstone Development Partners purchased the building in 2018 to readapt it for office space.
The first phase of the project is complete, which includes a “core and shell” renovation that restored the exterior, explains Project Architect Brittany Foley. Interior spaces have been restored, new bathrooms and stair completed, along with the installation of modern building systems (HVAC, electrical, fire protection, plumbing, and mechanical). The next phase will include a tenant build-out.
Perhaps nothing is more iconic on these mid-20th century bus depots than the running greyhound dog sculpture. The original running Greyhound was removed. A new one was recreated by creating a 3D sculpture in a digital software, then cast out of marine-grade plastic and coated with a custom automotive finish. The vertical marquee sign – a distinctive feature of Arrasmith-designed bus depots – was rebuilt.
“This building is architecturally significant in that it is a prime example of a mid-century transportation building in the Streamline Moderne style,” Foley observes. “This style is all about evoking the feeling of movement and celebrating all modes of transportation, which saw leaps and bounds of advancement during the mid-century after the world wars. The style is dominated by horizontal datum lines, curves, and hidden transportation motifs.”
Each element is designed to celebrate movement and various modes of transportation. Foley observes how the marquee resembles an airplane wing. The circular porthole window on the building’s northeast corner is a nod to nautical transportation. Movement is also expressed in the horizontal limestone water tables with a curved edge and rounded edges of the canopy.
“The Greyhound bus station underwent a harsh renovation in the 1970s which radically changed various elements and removed the iconic marquee and exterior canopy,” she notes.
“Our team had to carefully peel back layers of materials to uncover historic materials and then pursue a mindful restoration and an adaptive reuse of the bus station into office space with contemporary interventions. These modern interventions – such as a new monumental stair, new elevator, and new bathrooms – intentionally echo the spirit of the Streamline Moderne style but are of their own time. We juxtaposed these new elements with the historically significant interior finishes, which were carefully restored.”
Terrazzo flooring in the main lobby was restored and repaired with custom binder and aggregates that matched the existing flooring. Terrazzo in the historic segregated waiting room was uncovered underneath modern tile and restored. The monumental stair and segregated bathrooms were refurbished in a way that retains their significant history. In addition, the plaster was resurfaced and repaired.
“The ornamental plaster ceiling was carefully refurbished with new plaster resurfacing and repainted to remove the smoke staining,” continues Foley. “The ceiling troffer lights were temporarily taken down, allowing the contractor to climb up into the ceiling and install sprinkler pipe from above rather than trenching the ceiling. The troffer light coves were refinished with new powder coat paint and reinstalled to render the lobby to its historic grandeur. We salvaged historic door hardware and reused it throughout the building.”
The original ceiling was damaged, so Stewart Perry custom-matched the molding with sheetrock. Original windows in the baggage handling area were uncovered and the original exterior clock was updated with a new mechanism and the original flagpoles were restored.
Historic vintage signage was installed in the new baggage claim bathrooms, but readapted as a light box. On the exterior, the marquee’s unoriginal sheet metal cladding was removed. Metal composite panel over new sheathing and custom corrugated plastic infill panels was installed for the light box – all of which achieved a historically accurate aesthetic, but with modern “weather-tight” detailing, explains Foley.
“We like to think the sum-total of the details make this restoration one of the best.”
Not only is the building architecturally significant, but also historically significant as a site of the Civil Rights Freedom riders, a group of students and civil rights activists who used nonviolent tactics and rode interstate buses into segregated southern states. They did so to test the U.S. Supreme Court decision that segregation in interstate travel, which included bus stations, violated the Interstate Commerce Act.
“Our most proud moment was after we finished the core and shell, we were contacted to host an event for the 60th Anniversary of the Freedom Riders,” Foley recalls. “Two of the original Freedom Riders, Dr. Catherine Burks Brooks and Mr. Charles Person, asked to visit the space, reflect on what happened and share their story. This would be the first time in 60 years that they would step foot in this facility since they were mistreated by Bull Connor and the police.”
Brooks and Person were warmly welcomed at the bus station, in stark contrast to the treatment they received 60 years prior. At the event was a representative of the Birmingham Police who apologized for their past treatment.
“Personally speaking, this was one of the most impactful experiences of my professional career,” says Foley, “and I am very proud that something our team worked so hard on impacted others in such a positive way.”
*Article Written By Jessica Armstrong and Images Courtesy of Williams Blackstock Architects