Bell Building Rebirth

You know the Bell Building, even if you’ve never been inside.

It’s one of the key features of Montgomery’s downtown skyline. It’s our city’s first skyscraper, and we know it a bit better than most because we went into and out of it for about seven or so years at the end of its first incarnation.

The second incarnation is about to begin, and we went on a tour of one of the floors as it prepares to open in 2019 as an 88-unit residential building, a centerpiece of modern Montgomery’s downtown drive toward urban residential density.

But before we talk about the rental vision of Foshee Residential and the local media coverage of the important economic development milestone, let’s look back at the building we’re talking about.

Before the invention of “historic building tax credits,” a federal construction loan, and the EB-5 Investor Visa Program (leading to $4 million in Chinese funding), there was a building designed by Ausfeld & Blount, a local architectural firm. It opened in 1910, a dazzling display of steel, ambition, and capacity. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981.

We wrote our first love note to the Bell Building in 2009, which you can read here. We were anticipating the building’s century mark, and were happy to work in a building that had made it to 100 years old. We were excited to learn that the 12th floor was once home to the Beauvoir Club (a name almost certainly inspired by the Jefferson Davis homestead), one of Montgomery’s premiere drinking establishments.  For balance, the building also housed (in suite 508) the local headquarters of the Anti-Saloon League. The elevator rides mixing people from both crowds were likely epic.

For about 40 years, those elevators were operated by a man named Ulysses Pride, who retired when the elevators became automated. And long before S-Town made an Alabama town called Woodstock famous, we wrote an ode to a watchmaker who set up shop in the base of the Bell Building.

Over the years, we’ve met dozens of people who were visitors to the Bell Building. It’s iconic. A building that size had to have been a center of commerce and part of the economic backbone of the city. People went there to sign contracts, visit doctors, buy land, and get trophies engraved. People from neighboring Troy University have worked in there, as have lawyers, therapists, and accountants. They likely strolled Dexter, ate lunch downtown, and saw the whole world change. The building has seen the Rosa Parks Library and Museum open across the street, and countless performances at the Davis Theater next door.

A kind man named Roosevelt was the maintenance man for the last years of the building’s previous incarnation. He spent a lot of time in the building’s dank and mysterious basement boiler level, a subterranean look back into time, a layer below street level, hidden from the world.

When we went to look at the new apartment floor plan and concept, we met a guy whose grandfather was a custodian in the building back in the 1950s. He described being 7 or 8 years old and visiting his grandfather while he waxed and cleaned the meticulously manicured floors. He said that his grandfather, who was African-American, was raised by Newton J. Bell, the building’s namesake. Newton was white. Every story here turns out to be more complicated than you expect it to be, if you’ll just listen.

Even at the end of its previous incarnation, as tenants slowly bled out of the building, the brass elevator doors and transoms and crown molding gave hints of a faded splendor. When we worked there, you could still mail a letter down the tube that ran all the way from the top floor to the bottom. They say that the new incarnation will keep the look of the mail chute, but there won’t be any actual mailing through this route any longer.

Tax dollars paid by you and I, in the form of Federal Housing Administration loans, helped make this new life for the Bell Building possible.

Love Funding, “one of the nation’s leading providers of FHA multifamily, affordable and healthcare financing,” announced on Sept. 11, 2017, that it was closing on an $11.8 million loan for the conversion of the Bell Building into “market-rate loft apartments.”

Holly Bray, Senior Director of Love Funding’s Washington D.C. office, secured the money through HUD’s 221(d)(4) loan insurance program, and the transaction was supported by federal historic tax credit equity from National Trust Community Investment Corporation, and state historic tax credits purchased by First Partners Bank. If you’re curious, Love Funding is a subsidiary of Midland States Bank, Inc., a multi-billion dollar community banking organization headquartered in Effingham, Illinois. They offer “refinance, construction, rehabilitation and acquisition financing programs for multifamily and affordable housing, healthcare facilities and hospitals.”

WDG was the name of the construction company with a sign on the scaffolding outside the building, but despite their commitment to doing the job “On Time. Within Budget. As Promised,” their “Construction and Development Services” don’t appear to extend to having a functioning website. WDG, a full-service firm with extensive experience with federal funding to do rehabilitation projects, has gutted the Bell Building and replaced all of the mechanical systems in accordance with a design by the Rosemann & Associates architectural firm, which has done a lot of historic renovation work, mostly in Missouri.

According to the press release, MacRostie Historic Consultants has been assisting with the federal and state historic tax credit certification, and will work with the Alabama Historical Commission to ensure the rehabilitation follows state standards. Strangely, the project isn’t listed on the MacRostie national project map. Aren’t they as proud of Montgomery’s Bell Building preservation as they are of Birmingham’s famous Pizitz Building, which they also worked on?

We wrote about Foshee and downtown redevelopment and “the market district” back in 2014. We got to see inside the properties, and we’re happy that there’s been lots of progress on lower Dexter, though we remember when there were bigger promises afoot – remember when downtown was going to be “car free on weekends?” We’re curious to know more about how that settlement is going – are the Kress lofts full? How about the others? Are there really 88 families/individuals interested in moving into the Bell Building, when there’s no grocery store close to the place? And if there are, how awesome is that going to be for a downtown that needs retail but doesn’t have the momentum yet to make it happen? And what’s the role of the mysterious Lower Dexter Improvement Association in all of this?

These apartments are going to be pretty nice, with a price that reflects both improvements and location. The developers could maybe have done a better job of preserving the wonderful features of the original building instead of just sheetrocking over everything in a smooth modern finish, but they did save the great old windows, which are gigantic and full of light and warped just a little in the way of vintage glass. These places might be full of generic modern touches, but they also have some nice parts, and we’re happy to see the Bell Building’s great bones repurposed in a way that might bring many more people into downtown Montgomery.

And that’s our report. It’s a good one. But, as an aside, we really hope that the folks newly in charge won’t demolish the wonderful neon J. M. Leibowitz sign on the side of the building. That guy was awesome, a true jewel of Montgomery history, and we’d hate to see his legacy removed for some kind of short-lived boutique. But we’re not sad to see Lunde’s signage go – that place was terrible, and Montgomery’s lucky to have a lot of new food options downtown.


Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.


Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

There Are 2 Brilliant Comments

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. K. Brannon says:

    Lunde’s was terrible? Why? I enjoyed it a lot. I’m truly curious as to why you didn’t like it?

    • K. Brannon says:

      No reply to my question? So you drop a flippant comment like that, but can’t bother to explain why? I agree about Mr. Lebowitz. He was a sweetheart who I enjoyed talking to on many occasions. And Lunde’s was a great place to eat and is still missed by many.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *