Return of a Giant- page 2 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Return of a Giant

A fully restored Vulcan—Birmingham, Alabama's 100-year-old statue—resumes it's rightful place in town

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After months of debate, the Alabama State Fairgrounds offered Vulcan a perch. For three decades the statue loomed over the fairground racetrack. Parents would tell their children, "If you get lost, meet me at Vulcan's feet." But in this incarnation, his upper extremities had been hastily and improperly reassembled, and he no longer held the spear point and hammer. Worse, fair managers turned him into a billboard. An ice-cream company put a plaster cone in his left hand. He promoted Coca-Cola and Heinz 57 pickles. As workers took to the bread lines in the early 1930s, Vulcan also hit the skids, restyled with black eyebrows, rouged cheeks and a gigantic pair of overalls from a local manufacturer.

The New Deal helped bail out Birmingham and its fallen god. With the help of WPA funds, the statue became the centerpiece of an inviting new park at the crest of RedMountain. Placed on a stone-clad pedestal 12 stories high, overlooking the main north-south highway, he could be seen for miles. "Vulcan had a magnetic attraction for people," says Marjorie White, director of the Birmingham Historical Society. They came to enjoy the vistas from the pedestal's viewing platform, to picnic and fly kites and propose marriage.

But in 1946 local Jaycees turned him into a traffic safety beacon. His spear point was wrapped in a neon-lit cone; normally green, it glowed red for 24 hours after every local traffic fatality. An unfortunate "modernization" completed in 1971 produced a bulky, marble-clad pedestal and visitors' platform that curtailed close-up views of the statue.

By the '90s the once-buff behemoth was rapidly succumbing to cracks and corrosion. In 1999 the Vulcan Park Foundation was formed to restore him to his 1904 prime (though half of those polled wanted to keep his traffic beacon role). Workers repaired and recast damaged parts and, using historical photographs, re-created the missing spear point and hammer. Ten-acreVulcanPark was brought back to its rustic, WPA-era origins. Today, the muscular figure stands once again on a slender, 124-foot stone pedestal, above a new visitors center that illuminates the history of Birmingham and its ferrous mascot. Vulcan was rotated slightly to put his anvil closer to its original position. But his bare derrière still faces a suburb to the south—a feature known locally as "Moon over Homewood."

Once Vulcan surveyed a landscape of fiery mills and soot-stained air; today this uniquely American alloy of industry and artistry, capital and labor, carnival hype and pure civic pride watches over a postindustrial center of banking and medicine. Newly resplendent, he's ready for his next hundred years.


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