A look at Sibyl Temple, the Classically-inspired gazebo atop Shades Mountain

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The stunning Sibyl Temple in Vestavia Hills. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

As you drive up Highway 31 heading towards Vestavia Hills, it’s impossible to miss the stunning Sibyl Temple. Silently watching over Shades Valley, the Temple is a popular site for weddings and other events. But did you know that it was originally part of a much larger estate, owned by former Mayor George Ward? We took a look into the history behind the beloved landmark to learn more.

Mayor George Ward’s Vestavia Estate

George Ward’s Vestavia estate. The Sibyl Temple is located to the left of the home, known as the Temple of Vesta. Photo from the Birmingham Architecture and Design Collection at the Birmingham Public Library Archives

What we now know as Vestavia Hills took its name from a singular estate. Owned by former Birmingham Mayor George Ward, the 20-acre estate was located in Shades Valley. During a trip to Italy in the early 1900s, George Ward became enamored with the architecture of Ancient Rome, and decided to incorporate Classical elements into his home.

The Temple of Hercules Victor in Rome, circa 1870. This double-angled photo was meant to be viewed through a stereoscope, which allowed the user to see a simulated image in three dimensions. Photo via  Colosseum Rome Tickets

Once he returned to Birmingham, George Ward set about designing his Classically-inspired estate. Ward decided to model his home after what was then known as the Temple of Vesta, a circular temple built in the 2nd Century B.C.—the earliest surviving marble temple in the city of Rome. (Since then, the original temple has been correctly identified as the Temple of Hercules Victor).

George Ward’s Temple of Vesta, as seen on a postcard. Photo via BhamWiki

George Ward’s Temple of Vesta differed from its Classical inspiration in several ways. It utilized the rich, vari-colored stones from Birmingham’s mountains rather than marble and featured Doric-style columns rather than the ornate Corinthian-style columns of the original. Nonetheless, Ward’s Temple of Vesta brought a sense of Classical establishment to the fledgling area of Birmingham.

The Sibyl Temple

George Ward hosted famous Roman-themed parties at Vestavia, in which guests would wear togas. Photo circa 1929, via Brian on Flickr

The focal point of Vestavia’s extensive gardens was the Sibyl Temple, inspired by the partially-ruined Temple of Sibyl in Tivoli, Rome which dates back to the 1st Century B.C.

Eight sixteen-foot Corinthian columns supported the Temple’s 63-ton concrete dome. At Vestavia, the Sibyl Temple served as the garden gazebo and entrance to the estate’s bird sanctuary.

Although George Ward planned to be buried under his Sibyl Temple, a change in county laws mandated that he be buried in Elmwood Cemetery. After his death, the Vestavia changed hands several times—eventually the Temple of Vesta was torn down. However, the Sibyl Temple survived, and was painstakingly moved—all 87+ tons of it—to its present location atop Shades Mountain in 1976.

The Entrance to Vestavia Hills

Two of my closest friends from college recently hosted their wedding at the Sibyl Temple. Photo by Katie & Alec Wedding Photographers, courtesy of Katherine Polcari

Since relocation, the Sibyl Temple has been added to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. As a public park, the site offers a beautiful view of Shades Valley—especially at dusk and dawn.

In addition, Sibyl Temple is occasionally used as a venue for small weddings, birthday parties, photo shoots and more. However, the Temple is also available for private parties, larger weddings and other events through the non-profit Sibyl Temple Foundation.

Learn more about hosting a private event at the Sibyl Temple.

What is your favorite memory at the Sibyl Temple? Tag us @bhamnow to 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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