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Despite its nickname, there was no special magic behind Birmingham’s early growth. Instead, it took hard work and dedication from people who were committed to not just building a city, but caring for it as well. W.A. Watts was one of those people.
As founder of what is now known as Watts Realty Co., Inc., W.A. Watts played an integral role in the development of Birmingham in the early 1900s. But he didn’t stop there. Watts also helped expand the city through the creation of a building-and-loan program, and care for it through the construction of the Crippled Children’s Clinic, a forerunner to today’s Children’s of Alabama hospital.
Watts began leaving his mark on Birmingham early in his professional career. In 1906 he started Cement Block and Manufacturing, partly in response to the influx of workers seeking jobs in Birmingham’s burgeoning iron-and-steel industry. Most of these workers needed an economical place to live, so Watts’ company built approximately 2,000 long, skinny houses – commonly referred to as “shotgun homes” – and rented them out.
Many of these houses were built near Sloss Furnaces in the Avondale area, leading to the development of that neighborhood (Avondale officially became part of Birmingham in 1910) along with nearby Forest Park. One of Watts’ original shotgun homes remains on display on the grounds of Sloss Furnaces.
Watts truly moved into real estate in 1908 with the formation of the Hillman-Watts Land Company, which became Watts Realty Co., Inc., in 1918 following the passing of Mr. Hillman. The company grew steadily, to the point that by the mid-1920s, Watts Realty Co., Inc., occupied multiple floors in downtown’s Brown Marx Building.
At this point, it would have been easy for ol’ W.A. to go MIA from the community he had helped establish and to simply relax, but that wasn’t the Watts way. There was still more he wanted to do for Birmingham. So in 1925, Watts joined with bankers, builders and other real estate agents in the area to establish the Birmingham Building and Loan Association, in an effort to make it easier for developers to receive construction financing.
That might not seem like such a big deal now, but at the time there were few of these types of loan programs in existence. Suddenly, with developers having access to funds, Birmingham experienced a building boom, leading to the construction of such landmarks as the Florentine Building as well as expansion of the Five Points South area. The loan program was so successful that it eventually became federalized.
Finally, Watts was dedicated to the cause of children’s health. Polio was still a crippling disease in the 1930s, prompting Watts to join the Board of Trustees of the Birmingham Crippled Children’s Clinic in 1933. He worked to raise funds for a new hospital, joining forces with a group that in 1939 became known as the Monday Morning Quarterback Club. That organization has raised more than $23 million over the years for causes related to children’s health.
The practices and standards put forth by W.A. shaped the future of a family business that has endured over four generations, with each generation accomplishing just a bit more than the previous. Today, Watts Realty Company, Inc., continues to be a committed, fiscally conservative, ethical, and experienced management and sales team, serving the Alabama real estate market and its local communities by active involvement through volunteer and public service.
This dedication to the community that began with W.A. continued with Bill Watts Jr. – who was a key figure in the expansion of the YMCA throughout Birmingham in the 1960s and ‘70s – and carries on through Bill Watts III as well as the company’s fourth generation of Chip, David and Michael.
They are all part of the Watts Realty Co., Inc., family that literally has grown up with the city they call home.