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Crowning the highest hill between downtown Birmingham and nearby Red Mountain, Quinlan Castle brings a romantic silhouette to the skyline of what historically was a gritty, iron-and-steel city. The landmark has long captured the fancy of city residents.
Between 1905 and 1930, scores of apartment buildings appeared in the leading neighborhoods south of downtown. Although some reached six to ten stories in height, most were two-story fourplexes or three-story structures, scattered among freestanding Victorian and early-twentieth-century houses. Quinlan Castle became part of this pattern in 1927, rising where a large single-family house once stood, on the northern edge of Five Points South, a diverse and thriving residential neighborhood with an increasingly urban commercial core, located a mile south of the city center. The apartment building’s name came from its evocative image and from the street it faces, originally called Quinlan Avenue after the Roman Catholic bishop of Mobile, who had purchased the hilltop land from the company that founded Birmingham, presumably intending the site for a Catholic presence in the young city. The building features a rough stone exterior, heavy wood entrance doors with decorative iron hinges, a battlemented parapet, and four octagonal turrets. There are conflicting stories about the inspiration for the design, but the one that may be closest to the truth suggests that two Birmingham doctors stationed in southern France during World War I brought back memories of a medieval castle they had seen—possibly that at Carcassonne, which also sits atop a hill with turrets punctuating its outer walls.
Although from a distance the building gives the impression of a grand castle, where one might imagine affluent residents surveying the city from the comfort of their hilltop quarters, this is not the case. The castle consists of two long buildings joined by a wall on the north and south ends, with a narrow courtyard between them. (The courtyards of most Birmingham apartments were U-shaped at the entrance to the building, facing the street.) Quinlan’s central open space admits light and ventilation to the string of apartments that face the interior courtyard, while allowing the street-facing walls to read as a single, larger structure. There are 72 apartments in total, primarily studios with one-bedroom units at the corners. According to city directories, the socioeconomic status of early dwellers resembled that of apartment dwellers elsewhere in Birmingham’s Southside, with occupations ranging from clerk to policeman. (In contrast, early residents of the nearby Terrace Court, built in 1907, were predominantly professionals and business executives, including the presidents of a major life insurance company and of the city’s leading iron and steel company, a subsidiary of U. S. Steel). In 1929, new owners advertised apartments available furnished or unfurnished.
Almost as soon as it opened, Quinlan Castle experienced difficulties. Even before the 1929 stock market crash, the building conceived in the heyday of the 1920s changed owners, with turnover continuing during the Great Depression. Then in 1940 came an attention-grabbing police raid on an apartment rented to the secretary of the Communist Party’s Birmingham chapter. (Publicity about the raid prompted a name change, to Royal Arms Apartments, which lasted several decades before returning to Quinlan Castle). Meanwhile the area around Quinlan was changing. Before Quinlan had even been built, by the mid-1920s some of the large turn-of-the-twentieth-century houses in the immediate vicinity, just blocks from Hillman Hospital, were converted to doctors’ offices. With the 1930s came pressures from growing commercial activity at the center of Five Points South and from the devastation of the Depression, and after World War II, accelerating removal to the suburbs. While many residents and businesses remained in the area, many fled.
Today, Quinlan Castle shares the rest of its block with the campus of Southern Research, a scientific institution known for pharmaceutical drug discovery and development, and for advanced engineering projects ranging from rockets and airplanes to energy and the environment. Founded in 1941, Southern Research began in one of those late-nineteenth-century houses that typified the area’s change from residential to institutional. Over the course of the next several decades, starting in the late 1940s, the scientific organization transformed the block with the construction of some dozen new laboratories and facilities, plus a handful more on adjacent blocks. While Southern Research grew in prominence and physical plant, Quinlan Castle, by the 1980s and 1990s, grew in disrepair, suffering from poor upkeep and dated market appeal, exacerbated by lack of parking. In 1993, when Quinlan’s owner defaulted on a low-interest loan, the City of Birmingham took possession of the building. Abandoned and deteriorated, it stood empty except for squatters and illegal activities, prompting its next-door-neighbor to advocate demolition of the rundown castle. Fortunately this did not happen, and a decade or so later, in 2008, Southern Research acquired the building, cleaned it up, repaired the roof, and raised flags on its four turreted peaks. Southern Research is now considering how to incorporate the building as a functioning part of its campus, despite the masonry walls that hamper reconfiguration of the small apartments and the multimillion dollar cost to meet twenty-first-century needs.
Redolent of thriving Birmingham’s “big city” ambitions during the Roaring Twenties, Quinlan Castle also adds a refreshing—and rare—touch of highly visible architectural whimsy to Alabama’s built landscape.
Birmingham City Directories, 1880s through 1935.
Burkhardt, Ann McCorquodale Burkhardt. “Town Within a City: The Five Points South Neighborhood, 1880-1930.” Special issue of the Journal of the Birmingham Historical Society,7, nos. 3 and 4 (November 1982).
Cleveland, Mary Carolyn Boothby. Phone interview by Alice Meriwether Bowsher, August 17, 2017.
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