Shades Creek History and Samford’s Campus

I learned yesterday that the Birmingham Historical Society’s newest book, Shades Creek: Flowing through Time will be released Saturday at the annual Salamander Festival sponsored by the Friends of Shades Creek. The cover photo appears to be of the portion of Shades Creek adjacent to Samford’s Intramural Fields. The rapids in the foreground are formed by a watervane Samford installed in 2010 to help stabilize the bank and improve the quality of the creek. My colleagues in our biology and environmental science programs can tell you the mixed story of that experiment’s success. They can also fill you in on the salamanders that migrate into pools adjacent to this site about this time every year.

My part in this book was sharing my research on the development of Samford’s Lakeshore campus with Marjorie White, the historical society’s long-time leader and one of the book’s principal authors. It was great to discuss the contribution tot he campusof the famous landscape architectural firm Olmsted Brothers with someone who knows so much about their work and their contribution to Birmingham. I can’t wait to read the finished product.

After Howard College, now Samford University, purchased land on the north side of Shades Creek Road, now Lakeshore Drive, in 1947, it was given the flood plain of Shades Creek which had recently been a lake by the county for a dollar. Gradually Samford sold off or developed most of that land which resulted in the channelizing of the once winding creek. The book will tell the story of this development.

Bizarrely, Google Maps still labels the lake and shows part of the creek’s winding path even though both ceased to exist before Google existed.

Detail of Google map.
Google Map image captured January 23, 2019.

Part of my research on the development of Samford’s campus on the north side of Lakeshore Drive was published in Samford’s Seasons magazine in the Winter 2005 issue. You can read the four page article here. The whole issue and other issues are available are available on the Samford website. Much of the article focuses on the changes between the initial site plan prepared in 1947 by the Boston-based landscape architects, Olmsted Brothers, and the later plan that guided development to the present day. The Birmingham-based firm Van Keuren and Davis (now Davis Architects) partnered with Olmsted Brothers in the first plan, but developed the second by itself.

The initial plan arranged the main quad at an angle to Lakeshore Drive so that it was sited toward the lake. It also had separate quadrangles for men’s and women’s dorms and a back entrance on to Saulter Road. The chapel, rather than the library, was placed at the head of the main drive.

1947 site plan.
Olmsted Brothers, Landscape Architects and E.B. Van Keuren & Charles F. Davis Architects, “Howard College, Birmingham, Alabama, Preliminary Site Plan, October 2, 1947. Special Collections, Samford University Library
1950 perspective.

Howard’s Future Campus, Howard College Alumnus, December 1950.

This plan was abandoned because grading the land to develop it was estimated to be too expensive. This was due in part to apparent inconsistencies between the topographic information supplied to Olmsted Brothers and the actual topography of the land. Van Keuren and Davis’s 1955 plan was more compact, more enclosed, and veered away from the traditions of landscape architecture favored by Olmsted and more toward the classical Beaux-Arts tradition.

1955 perspective.
Van Keuren, Davis, and Company, “Howard College, Birmingham, Alabama,” 1955. perspective. Special Collections, Samford University.
Model of 1955 plan.
Van Keuren, Davis, and Company, model of 1955 plan. Special Collections, Samford University Library.

By using a smaller portion of the site, it left more room for later development, including the eventual sale of the eastern end of the campus to Southern Progress. This land and the three large buildings now on it was repurchased in 2014 and now housed the College of Health Sciences.

The legacy of the Olmsted Brothers plan survives in few ways. These include the location of the site itself, the siting of the main entrance, and the positioning of the performing arts center near Lakeshore Drive and the west gate. Marjorie White has long championed the legacy of Olmsted Brothers and other landscape architects in Birmingham. I look forward to reading more about this in her new book.

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