The largest Kiwanis club in the world works to restore an iconic community statue and surrounding park.
Story by Julie Saetre • Photos by Meg McKinney
There’s something you need to know if you visit Birmingham, Alabama. Perched high on Red Mountain, the world’s largest cast-iron statue overlooks the state’s largest city. But please don’t call it “the statue.” His name, thank you very much, is Vulcan. And even if he had a surname, Birmingham residents would still be on a first-name basis with the big guy.
“We call him “him,” says Darlene Negretto, CEO and president of Vulcan Park & Museum, which lie at Vulcan’s feet. “He is a person to us.”
So when the world’s largest Kiwanis club, the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham, asked for project ideas to mark its centennial anniversary, it’s not surprising that members decided on a proposal that centered around Vulcan.
“In the 1930s, our club had the idea of putting him up on Red Mountain,” explains club President Tom Thagard. “It makes him the most prominent part of the city. I’m sitting here looking at him, and it’s like the Statue of Liberty is to New York City. It’s the iconic image of Birmingham.”
Negretto partnered with staff at the Freshwater Land Trust, a nonprofit that conserves land and creates trails in central Alabama. The Land Trust’s most ambitious project to date is the Red Rock Trail System, which upon completion will include 750 miles of trails, parks, bike lanes and sidewalks.
“Over time, we realized that public access to land, connecting folks to conserved land, is a really important part of ensuring that people have bought into the conservation mission,” says Mary Beth Brown, communications director for the Land Trust.
Negretto and the Land Trust staff submitted a proposal to create Vulcan Trail — 2.2 miles that would serve as the Red Rock Trail System’s backbone — and connect it with Vulcan Park & Museum.
“It’s the central piece of the trail system,” Brown explains. “It runs right through the middle of Jefferson County and Birmingham. This trail really opens doors in terms of developing connector trails.”
The park and the trail would be unified by restoring an area that had served as a streetcar stop and pedestrian entrance for those viewing Vulcan in the ‘30s. When a 1960s park modernization blocked off the area, kudzu and native plants and trees took over.
“It was fenced off from downtown Birmingham,” Thagard says. “The only way you could get to Vulcan was to drive to a different city and drive up from there.”
The Kiwanians loved the joint proposal, but they had even bigger plans.
“What they came back with,” Negretto recalls, “was embellished with a light show and new lighting (on Vulcan), which visibly reconnects him with the community. They took what we gave them and really ran with it and created something that is just a stunning addition to our community and to the skyline.”
To understand how much Vulcan means to Birmingham, you have to return to his roots. Back in the early 1900s, the leaders of Birmingham — then barely three decades old — decided to create a display for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Hoping to attract new residents, they wanted to focus fairgoers’ attention on the city’s strength: iron. Birmingham is the only place in the world where all ingredients for making iron — coal, iron ore and limestone — can be found within a 10-mile radius.
That’s where Vulcan came in. His namesake was the Roman god of fire and forge. What could be more representative of the force that would drive Birmingham’s success? A big project needed a big name behind it, so city leaders sought out Giuseppe Moretti, an Italian native and sculptor who then lived in the United States and was known for creating notable public monuments.
Moretti designed Vulcan, whose parts were cast in Birmingham under the sculptor’s watchful eye.
“The iron that was used came from Red Mountain,” says Negretto. “He was literally forged from the elements that lay beneath us.”
Those pieces were shipped to St. Louis and assembled by Moretti. Vulcan stood 56 feet tall from his toe to the tip of his raised spear. He proudly took his place at the World Fair’s in the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy, where he won the Grand Prize in the mineral department. Moretti also received honors.
Vulcan’s return home was not as triumphant. Disassembled for transport, his pieces were left unceremoniously along the railroad tracks and remained there for 18 months while city leaders clashed over what to do with them. Still, Vulcan’s impact on World’s Fair guests remained strong.
“Twenty-million people went to St. Louis,” Negretto says. “Vulcan captured their imaginations, and he inspired folks to move their families and their businesses to populate our area. Vulcan did just what he was intended to do. The city grew by leaps and bounds.”
Vulcan wound up being reassembled — without Moretti and incorrectly — on the Alabama State Fairgrounds, supposedly for a short term. Because his arms and hands were not placed correctly, he could no longer properly hold his spear. Someone saw an opportunity for a marketing ploy, and as his temporary stay dragged on for 30 years, Vulcan suffered the indignity of hoisting a pickle spear, a soda pop bottle, an ice cream cone and other advertising gimmicks. In a particularly grim iteration, he had to sport a giant pair of overalls.
Finally, the community decided to return him to a place of honor. Vulcan Park was created in the ‘30s, and the Kiwanians relocated him to his new home on Red Mountain in 1939. The spear, however, didn’t make the trip then either. In the mid 1940s, Vulcan began holding a light as the centerpiece of a traffic-safety program. If drivers were operating safely, the light shone green. When a traffic-related fatality occurred, the light changed to red.
“People were coming back from the war, and it was more common for folks to be able to afford a personal automobile,” Negretto says. “Traffic safety was very important. That was planned to be six months, but it was so successful that it stayed for nearly 50 years.”
“It sounds kind of morbid,” says Thagard, “but there are all of these intergenerational memories from kids and adults and grandparents from all over the southeast of that green and red light. It made a tremendous impact on anybody who came through.”
In the 1990s, Vulcan’s future again came into question. The years and the elements had taken their toll, and Vulcan had fallen into disrepair. A engineering study revealed that his condition was so dire that he must be removed from the park immediately, and the city lacked funds to undertake the extensive restoration work. So residents sprang into action.
“The community banded together and worked to achieve the goal of restoring and saving Vulcan,” Negretto says. “They couldn’t allow him to literally rust away.”
Major corporations and government entities got on board, but so did school students and adults on limited incomes. The effort not only raised the necessary funds, but it helped heal a community still haunted by the memory of violent responses to peaceful civil-rights protests in the 1960s.
“It was remarkable, the outpouring of emotion, the desire to work together to save Vulcan,” says Negretto. “It was a turning point for our community, because we were still struggling with our past. And how perfect that our unifying symbol brought us together to save him.”
The resulting restoration project, complete with Vulcan’s spear returned to his lifted hand, received the highest honor in the nation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Vulcan was back.
Marc Brickman is on tour with Neil Young, overseeing light design for the famous Canadian singer-songwriter’s series of solo shows. Brickman himself is world-famous as the lighting designer behind headliner projects that include performances by the band Pink Floyd, Olympics ceremonies in Spain and Japan, and Empire State Building light shows set to music by iconic artists.
Brickman also designed the light show for Vulcan. The Kiwanians knew what they wanted — “something incredibly dynamic,” says Thagard — but they couldn’t find someone to pull off their vision. Then a few members came across online videos of Brickman’s Empire State Building shows. Brickman remembers receiving a phone call from the club in 2017.
“I have an unlisted phone number,” he says. “I keep a very low profile. You have to work hard to find me. I looked at the number when it came in — Birmingham, Alabama — and thought, ‘It’s probably one of these sales calls trying to sell me carpet cleaner or something.’ I answered the phone a little rudely. And then when I realized who they were, my tone changed immediately.”
Once again, as with Vulcan’s creation, a big project had attracted a big name.
“I loved the whole idea of it,” Brickman says. “Once I found out the history of the statue and the history of that Kiwanis club, I was really excited. I loved all the energy. It was fantastic.”
Brickman sought to instill that energy into the light show.
“Everyone’s putting a big investment into the technology,” he says. “Three years, five years from now, it’s going to grow in terms of what people want it to do. What I brought was to make it have more of a life and to keep making it more versatile and accessible.”
It’s July 4th, and hundreds of people have gathered at Vulcan Park & Museum to watch the state’s largest fireworks display. Anticipation is high, because Vulcan’s light show debuts after the fireworks finale.
The premiere will complete the three-pronged centennial project. The 550-plus Birmingham Kiwanians pledged US$1.6 million toward the more than $5.8 million endeavor and raised the rest. Tonight marks the pinnacle of that investment.
The Vulcan Trail opened in late March, guiding its guests from vast city views to serene surroundings under a canopy of trees. Despite a particularly rainy spring, 10,000 visitors enjoyed it during the first three months alone.
“A lot of times, people think if you want a pristine, native-species area, you need to get out of an urban space,” says the Land Trust’s Brown. “This illustrates that you can have both.”
Kiwanis Centennial Park opened the same day as Vulcan Trail. Gone is the overgrown land on the park’s north side. Now, holiday revelers stroll around a new plaza, surrounded by landscaping incorporating native plants. Around a splashing fountain, amphitheater-style stone seating allows guests to rest and gaze out over downtown Birmingham. Steps lead up to Vulcan, newly spotlighted with architectural lighting.
“Now,” says Thagard, “he’s by far the most prominent thing on Birmingham’s nighttime skyline.”
As dusk arrives, Vulcan soon will shimmer under a mesmerizing blend of LED light configurations that dance to the tunes of “Sweet Home Alabama” and Birmingham’s own “Tuxedo Junction.” Afterward, the emails will pour into Thagard’s inbox, calling the show spectacular, stunning, significant.
Brickman, who left the Neil Young tour to be here, (“I told Neil, ‘I’ve got to go. You’ve got to do Detroit without me.’”) already is planning the next stages, which will include seasonal presentations and, he says, much more.
“We have a couple of initiatives that I actually haven’t done anywhere yet in the world,” he hints. “We’re going to introduce some new technology that will allow it to really connect with the city of Birmingham. I guess that is really what Kiwanis is all about. It’s about outreach.”
And of course, at the center of it all, still will be Vulcan.
“He reminds us of where we came from and what we can achieve as a community,” Negretto says. “He’s an inspirational symbol. He’s a connection to the generations past, and he’ll be standing and connect us to the generations yet to come. He is very much a part of our community in a very personal way.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.