On Birmingham’s Southside, adjacent to Greensprings Avenue, there is a well-used park — nearly 84 acres — named after George Ward. Few who use the park probably realize just how significant Ward is in the history of the city, and particularly, its beautification efforts.
Marjorie White, the longtime executive director of the Birmingham Historical Society, aims to change all that with her most recent book, “Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward.” Her book is actually named after a booklet Ward himself wrote more than a century ago.
Ward’s influence over the structure of cities including Birmingham, Vestavia Hills and Homewood, as well as how he shaped the mindset of the public statewide about aesthetics, preservation and conservation remain today — even if not everyone is aware of it. A big reason for that is Ward pushed his campaigns across geographic, political and racial boundaries and over time, for more than 30 years, White said. “He just continued to work with every group of everybody,” White said.
“He continued his conservation campaigns that he began in the city when he was mayor and then commission president when he moved up to Vestavia. He continued writing to the editors, storming the city council meetings in Homewood and in the city of Birmingham. He passed statewide legislation to protect wildflowers and to protect birds. He was always out campaigning against signs and billboards. When the city of Birmingham was attempting to sell off Lane Park, he would storm down the mountain and protest,” she said.
“He was involved in all kinds of campaigns to protect, to plant roses — that was one of the big things throughout the ’30s and WPA, they were planting roses. He was head of the Rose Society. He founded the Audubon Society in Birmingham… They met up at Vestavia. They went on bird hunts, they collected birds with the Chicago Field Museum. He had the Boy Scouts of Homewood declaring Homewood a bird sanctuary.”
Ward was a Birmingham alderman, the mayor of Birmingham (1905-08) and president of the Birmingham City Commission (1913-17), among other things. As noted on bhamwiki.com, Ward was also the founder of Sterne Agee investment brokers.
“The road to his temple was Vesta Via,” White points out.
White began writing her book about Ward during the pandemic, “because I had all the pieces put together over many years and when the pandemic came it was the time to pull them all together,” she said. “And I had the opportunity to concentrate on it.”
Perhaps fittingly, a book about the namesake of a park begins with the papers of a man known for championing the creation of public parks throughout the country: Frederick Law Olmsted. White got the germ of an idea for writing about Ward when she was looking into the Olmsted Papers, “an invaluable resource of personal and professional papers spanning the years of 1838 to 1895, which provide a unique perspective on American society and institutions in the nineteenth century,” as noted on olmsted.org.
Those papers included Olmsted’s perspectives on various communities.
“Thirty years ago, I went with the scholar of Olmsted … the scholar who was publishing the Olmsted Papers,” White said. “I went to a meeting of the National Trust in Washington and he said anybody who wants to see their Olmsted Papers meet me at the Library of Congress tomorrow morning. So I went. And when I opened the first file on the Olmsted brothers, out tumbled this precious little booklet, Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of George Ward. And it’s just so wonderful to know this idea of everybody working to do their part,” White said. “You know, organizing all the women, and then everyone in the city, to help make it a healthier, more beautiful environment.”
White said that writing about Ward’s City Beautiful campaign was an idea she considered for a long time.
“Then we researched parts through the years and, you know, heard about George Ward and then the Sterne Agee Foundation asked us to do something in honor of their founder George Ward and we said ‘Oh yes, we’d love to,’” she said.
“So, we then started researching the Ward scrapbooks,” White said. “He loved newspapermen and he loved to give them good stories. And he gave them lots and they wrote about him, and he clipped everything, everything about him, everything about the city, and these 25 scrapbooks he filled with paste ups. … These date from the 1890s till he died in 1940. They’re just absolutely marvelous.”
As a historian, White knew much about Ward, but the City Beautiful campaign was new to her.
“You hear lots of different stories about George Ward and you know that the park is there … but exploring this idea of the City Beautiful — it’s something that I’ve gotten very interested in because everybody is surprised by Birmingham as being a City Beautiful with its native environment. And so exploring how the City Beautiful played out was what I learned by reading through the scrapbooks.”
Like Ward himself, the concept of the City Beautiful movement is less known today — but once had quite a bit of notoriety and influence over landscapes, architecture and public spaces across the country, White said. “The City Beautiful in the early 20th century, a hundred years ago, was what every aspiring American city wanted to be. … But the concept of City Beautiful was as urban areas were growing to save land for parks and to link them with parkways and to have a park system,” she said. “The other major thing that they wanted was to concentrate governmental and civic buildings around a large park at the center of the city.”
The City Beautiful movement “began in the United States in response to crowding in tenement districts, a consequence of high birth rates, increased immigration and internal migration of rural populations into cities. The movement flourished for several decades, and in addition to the construction of monuments, it also achieved great influence in urban planning that endured throughout the 20th century, particularly in regard to United States public housing projects,” as noted in Wikipedia.
While the City Beautiful movement began in the 1890s in Chicago, it continued well into the next century in Birmingham, largely thanks to Ward.
“What I learned through the Ward papers is that the City Beautiful in Birmingham lasted much longer than anywhere else because George Ward had gotten everybody involved and they were all still working on all these ideas of creating parkways and acquiring land for parks,” White said. “Also the City Beautiful in Birmingham moved into the conservation movement as George Ward became more and more interested, after he moved to Vestavia, in the conservation of natural areas and the protection of natural beauty and birds and wildlife.
“The movement in Birmingham lasted much longer than nationally, to the extent that you find the Chamber of Commerce after World War II putting out maps for Birmingham the Industrial City Beautiful. I think it really was the way people who lived here described themselves.”
As one example, Ward worked with Warren H. Manning, a landscape architect involved with beautifying the areas along the city streetcar railway and numerous other projects in Birmingham (the city commission contracted with him for city planning in 1914), including what is now Linn Park, and in the development of Mountain Brook’s village system. Ward and Manning had a goal of beautifying the land near Birmingham creeks by turning them into linear parks, White said.
Those plans never saw completion, “But lots of the Manning plan went forward anyways including Port Birmingham and all of the viaducts downtown and just many other things, White said. “But there was a whole generation just trained there, by Ward and by Warren Manning, and then by the Olmsteds, who continued to work through the 1940s and into the ’50s to accomplish this idea of Birmingham, the City Beautiful.”
In national circles, Ward became known for his efforts to get “everybody” involved in city beautification, White said.
Ward believed, for instance, that if all the women in Birmingham would plant grass in the strip of land in front of their houses, Birmingham’s appearance would improve tremendously. That was a radical idea for several reasons.
In 1908, when Ward started getting the women of Birmingham to work on beautification, “Nobody talked to women,” White said, laughing. “Nobody put their credence in women. But Ward did. And that was picked up by the national press as this guy is turning to women to do this thing and actually, they’re doing a pretty good job. But he went on from women to men. He had all the leadership in the city involved. He had Oscar Adams, who was sort of the head of the Negro Civic and Educational League. He had everybody tapped. And he had the corporations. And as I told you, he had the streetcar railways. He had everybody involved. It began with the women but it went on. He quoted this little Kipling poem that said, ‘It’s the everlasting teamwork of every blooming soul.’ You did whatever you could.”
Ward, who had grown up in the Relay House hotel, a Birmingham crossroads institution managed by his parents and grandparents, “was a person who was comfortable with everybody,” White said.
The period of Ward’s greatest influence coincided with people moving in large numbers from the rural areas into the cities — and having to learn how to adapt to city life, White said. “In 1908, you still had cows and horses and barnyard animals running around in the streets. … He had these ordinances — if somebody’s chicken got in your yard you were allowed to catch it and it was yours. They were learning how to live in urban areas, coming from the rural south.”
White noted that Ward “was committed to developing parks. He brought into the system Greensprings Park — which was later named for him — East Lake Park, and then he just decided to stop the use of Lane Park as a cemetery and he called it Red Mountain Park. … The city did not have adequate finances to develop the parks. So that’s one of the reasons he went to the private sector, to help. And he would set up commissions for all the parks to take care of themselves. Everybody who lived around the park was supposed to help take care of it.”
When Ward bought land in what is now Vestavia, in 1923, he hired an accomplished gardener, “to develop these fabulous gardens. And he is a classics scholar and so he builds this temple of Vesta as his home,” White said. “Up there he has gardens that are beautifully planned, but he also has a 10-acre, what he called a ‘wild garden,’ which was up on the bluffs of Shades Mountain. Wild flowers. It was a garden of natural plants, native beauty. Half of the estate was cultivated and half of it was native plants. So he opened it,” White said.
Ward ran his private garden more like a public park, she said. “He was always entertaining. He had special days for — at that time they said ‘negroes’ — to come, but he was in correspondence with George Washington Carver. And George Washington Carver came to the site and documented the medicinal plants on it and wrote him back letters, which are in the scrapbook, saying that he really hoped that it could be preserved as a botanical garden. Anyway, he ran it like a public park. It was free, too. He developed it like he could not develop the parks in Birmingham because he didn’t have the money.”
When Ward became an investment banker, he made lots of money and poured it all into his estate, White said. But his eye was always on the public good.
“His last project was to help build a parkway across Shades Valley, which became Lakeshore Parkway,” White said. “The parkway was to go around the lake, which was Edgewood Lake, which was there at that point in time. That was his last project that he was working on from 1938 to 1940 when he died. So he continued to gather everybody he could together to forward the best interest of the community.”
Ward, White said, was “ just an amazing person.”
“Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward” is available from Birmingham Historical Society, One Sloss Quarters, Birmingham, AL 35222 for $30 postpaid, from Amazon, and from Shoppe at 3815 Clairmont Avenue South.