A behind the scenes look at Birmingham’s Empire Building. Photos included!

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Empire Building
The Empire Building while under construction on June 17, 1909. Photo via Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts

As one of Birmingham’s most beautiful skyscrapers, the Empire Building has dominated the city skyline for over 100 years. Since the building has seen many changes, it has a rich and storied history. Read on to learn more!

Fun Facts

Empire Building
A massive crowd watches Harry Gardiner climb the Empire Building on January 30, 1917. Photo via Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts
  • In 1917, thousands of Birminghamians gathered to see Harry Gardiner (aka “The Human Fly“) climb the exterior of the Empire Building. In addition, Harry Gardiner climbed the building without any ropes or harnesses. My hands are sweating just thinking about it!
  • The iconic busts on the top corners of the building represent important figures for the building. For instance, the bust of Emperor William represents architect William Welton, and the bust of Frederick the Great represents project superintendent Frederick Larkin.

Early History

Empire Building
The Empire Building took the place of the old Bank Saloon, which was constructed in 1883. Photo via Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts

After completion in 1909, the 247 foot tall Classical Revival skyscraper stood as the tallest building in Alabama. However, in 1912, the John Hand Building stole the title.

The building originally held offices and businesses in the upper floors, with a local drug store on the ground floor. However, the City National Bank remodeled the building in 1965 to fit their needs. In 1981, the bank reinvented itself as the Colonial Bank. The bank held a branch on the ground floor until 2009, when the bank was dissolved.

Life as the Elyton Hotel

Empire Building now and then

After 3 years of vacancy, the Empire Building was purchased by investors in 2012. Five years and $27 million in renovations later, the 107-year-old building reopened as a five-star boutique hotel in the Marriott Autograph Collection.

Although the new hotel originally went by the name “Empire Hotel”, objections from New York’s Empire State Building forced Birmingham to reconsider. However, the owners chose to honor Birmingham history by renaming the building to the Elyton Hotel.

In addition to the hotel, the building hosts a rooftop bar (MoonShine) and a full-service restaurant (The Yard).

Which of Birmingham’s historic buildings would you like to read about next? Tag @bhamnow and let us know!

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Nathan Watson
Tennessee native who fell in love with Birmingham during college. Graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2019. Passionate about Birmingham and its continued growth.
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