In Alabama, Downtown Builders Peel Back History

"Really, the building's talking to us and telling us what's possible and what's not possible," Foshee Design & Construction owner John Foshee said.

📅   Mon April 13, 2015 - National Edition
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Montgomery's downtown market, circa 1900.
Montgomery's downtown market, circa 1900.

MONGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Recessed lighting and gleaming stainless steel line the reimagined 1800s building. Black beams brace the historic brick walls while a bar sits bathed in neon pink light, waiting for its first customers.

Workers were putting the final touches on the new Cuco’s Mexican Café last week, inside one of several Dexter Avenue buildings being rebuilt as part of a new downtown Market District. Each structure has had ”so many different lives,’ said architect Dan Beeker of Foshee Design & Construction.

Cuco’s modern kitchen now stands where people used to hitch their horses back when the building was a barbershop. Early in the process, workers found a bottle of hair tonic there that was ”about 90 percent alcohol,’ Beeker said.

”You could put it on your head if you’re trying to cure baldness,’ he said. ”Or you could drink it. Either way you would forget about the fact that you’re missing some hair.’

Builders are trying to preserve the character of one of the state’s most historic streets while repurposing several blocks of buildings for modern use. It’s a unique situation with a unique set of challenges.

”It’s not like doing a set of apartments in a field in east Montgomery, or a restaurant on the boulevard,’ Beeker said.

There are buildings next to buildings, apartments above restaurants, restaurants next to offices. The first problem is just figuring out how to get people in and out of each space, and safety and city codes have to be addressed.

All of that limits what can be done with each building. A developer may want an open floor plan, but that isn’t always realistic in a century-old structure full of load-bearing brick walls.

”Really, the building’s talking to us and telling us what’s possible and what’s not possible,’ Foshee Design & Construction owner John Foshee said.

They spent much of the winter going under the street to install new power, sewer and water lines. Some of the ones that were in the buildings before were ”as old as Montgomery,’ Foshee said.

He and Beeker talk about all the work ahead while walking across the dirt floor inside the 72 Dexter Ave. building next door to Cuco’s.

”The owners of this building 20 or 30 years ago had some floor rot issues,’ Foshee said. ”The safest thing to do was to take out the floor.’

Beeker says many of the buildings had wood floors built directly on top of the soil, leading to moisture leeching up through the wood over time. Others had suffered from shoddy repair work through the years, leading to extensive problems that could have been avoided.

John Foshee looks up at work underway on the second floor of the cavernous building.

”(The current work) will be newer materials, better ways of doing things, things we’ve learned from our past,’ Foshee said.

Lunchtime crowds stream into The Irish Bred Pub nearby as Cuco’s gets ready for its bow. Meanwhile, workers are still peeling back layers of history in other Dexter Avenue buildings.

Beeker points to the modern tile work next to exposed original brick behind the bar in Cuco’s. It’s a contrast that he says makes a statement about the ever-changing identity of a building that has been a barbershop, a beauty supply house and more.

”What’s exciting about opening these buildings up is you see that from the beginning they’ve been evolving and changing because cultures change and people evolve,’ Beeker said.

”We’re being respectful (to history), but it’s OK that things change. We’re not living in a museum, and we don’t want to be.’