MOVING CITY HALL
November 18, 2013
By Audrey Fraizer
It’s tough fighting city hall, especially when the building’s falling apart and there isn’t the money to fix it.
At stake is the Haleyville, Ala., city hall where the first 9-1-1 call was made in 1968. The building, at that time less than a decade old, was in its prime. Architect Martin J. Lide, who had his firm in Birmingham, Ala., was contracted for the design and, similar to much of his work, its actual construction has received attention among mid-20th century preservationists.
The Haleyville City Hall was listed in the Alabama Historical Commission’s Register of Landmarks and Heritage on Aug. 12, 2013. Eligibility included the age of the property—at least 40 years old—and its association with an event of state significance.
Listing in the state register is an honorary designation and exists to bring attention to and promote the property’s historical significance and, thereby, encourage its long-term preservation. The register does not restrict the rights of private property owners in the use, development, or sale of the property.
The building is scheduled to be demolished by early 2014 should the city close on a lucrative deal to sell the property to a commercial developer.
Haleyville resident Valeria Taylor is inflexible in her view against the sale, and if there’s one battle she’ll fight to the finish, it’s protecting Haleyville’s claim to 9-1-1 history.
“City hall is a grand-looking place,” Taylor said. “It’s the one real value to history left in this town, and there’s the sign out front ‘Where it all began.’ What other town can say that?”
Taylor, who is 73, has lived her entire life in the town made famous by the first 9-1-1 call placed in the country. She doesn’t recall what she was doing at the time, and she can’t recall much local reaction to the event. She was married with two sons and a practicing social worker for the state of Alabama.
“I was busy and pretty much a wallflower,” she said. “I didn’t get involved.”
Taylor, however, fondly remembers the “Old Haleyville,” the place where she grew up, went to high school, raised children, and admired the city’s Christmas tree decorated for “everyone to see” in the downtown square.
“It was actually more of a triangle,” she said.
Over the years, Taylor said she has watched her memories torn down, one by one, and replaced by businesses she doesn’t necessarily chalk up to progress. Gone are the family-owned hardware stores, barbershops, five-and-dimes, movie theater, and grocery stores.
“The town went wet to attract more business,” she said. “But I don’t think a tattoo parlor or saloon are the types of business we wanted to come here.”
Taylor said city hall is one of few vestiges of Haleyville’s past. One other is the town’s first brick commercial building, a department store that Haleyville residents Dr. Joe Teal and his wife, Judy, bought in 1999 and spent thousands to renovate. The building is registered with the Alabama Historical Commission (since 2004) and the National Historical Commission (since 2009).
“That’s a whole story in itself,” Taylor said. “He had his own struggles with city hall and had to go out of town for help, but he got it.”
Taylor has followed Dr. Teal’s lead. The city hall building has state recognition, but sadly, she said, there is little time remaining to secure the national recognition.
By September’s end, Mayor Ken Sunseri and his five city council members will know whether the site will be sold. A developer offered an amount—in excess of $1 million—that far exceeds anything the city might expect from other commercial developers.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” Sunseri said.
The council agreed. If all goes as anticipated, city offices would have six months to vacate and the building would be torn down in early 2014, and its replacement would be built downtown.
Sunseri appreciates Taylor’s concern. He moved to Haleyville in 1974, and his father-in-law, James Whitt, was Haleyville mayor at the time the first-ever 9-1-1 call was placed on Feb. 16, 1968, by Alabama Legislature Speaker of the House Rankin Fite from Haleyville City Hall to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill, who answered in a different room at city hall.
Taylor finds irony in the history.
“Don’t you think it’s strange that the son-in-law of the mayor who was there when it started wants the building torn down?” she asked. “You’d think he’d be the first person who’d want to save it.”
Sunseri says it comes down to practicality.
“I understand why she wants to preserve the building,” Sunseri said. “But sometimes emotion and logic don’t meet in the same place.”
The building turns 60 in two years, and it started showing its age a long time ago, Sunseri said. The air conditioning unit, dating to 1959, hasn’t kept most offices at peak comfort for a good decade. To replace the unit, he said, would take cutting a hole in the roof.
“The roof needs to be replaced anyway,” he said.
The plumbing’s bad—a drainage pipe makes it impossible to reconfigure for disability accessibility—and the original wiring is still in use. Because of a shortage of copper in the 1950s, due to World War II, aluminum filled the urgent requirement to find a replacement. As often happens when there is an urgent need for something, there was a lack of due diligence such as appropriate testing by the labs of the day.
“We’re skeptical about the wiring,” Sunseri said.
Although Haleyville is a small town (pop. 4,172 in 7.4 square miles) with a proportionate number of public service officials, Sunseri said the city hall building is overcrowded and largely obsolete for the water and police departments, dispatch (the county handles 9-1-1 calls), courts, mayor’s office, and council staff.
The room where the call was placed is the office for the magistrate, and the room where the call was received is a storage closet. Sunseri doesn’t recall people asking for tours of the two rooms, and there is public access in the city hall lobby to the relics of the call—phone, plaques, and a written history.
And if the sale doesn’t go through?
“We lose out,” Sunseri said. “We stay here and make the repairs, but we’d have to do it in stages. It would cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars we don’t have. A new roof would be $300,000 alone.”
Building woes don’t impress Taylor, and neither does the money the city stands to make if sold. She heard about the potential sale in May at a city council meeting she attended on an unrelated matter.
“I thought council members were making a joke about selling city hall,” she said. “Come to find out they were serious.”
Taylor immediately got on a campaign to save city hall. Her daughter-in-law took photos that Taylor posted on a website (savethehomeof911.com) targeted to stop the demolition. She designed T-shirts displaying the message and circulated petitions in town and online. Taylor promoted the annual 9-1-1 festival honoring all police, fire, and emergency personnel.
Dr. Teal, who has joined the fight, is a chiropractor practicing in Georgia, and he and his wife own land in Haleyville. He has plied Sunseri and city council with questions relating to the cost of repairing the city hall building, taxes, and if money is uncertain, “is it wise to invest in a new city hall at this time?”
“Sorry to sound so negative, but in addition to optimists and pessimists, there are also realists,” he said.
Sunseri said there’s no intention of annihilating history. The historic red phone on display in city hall would stay in Haleyville where he said it belongs.
“The phone’s what’s significant and not where the call was made,” he said. “We’d keep the phone and put it on display in the new building. I don’t think the town would miss the current city hall, and we’d still have the history.”
The architect, who is 95 and lives in Texas close to his son, also an architect, said he was delighted to learn the first call was made in the building he designed. Lide hadn’t known that fact until Sept. 10, 2013, when his son, also named Martin, talked to him about the city hall building he designed and its uncertain future.
At the same time, he doesn’t find the building architecturally significant, which is not to dismiss the historical significance.
“It was a design that I did, that I was proud of, and it may rightly have historical significance to some people in Haleyville,” he said. “But, I personally do not regard the architectural design of the building as having historical architectural significance at a broader societal level.”
As far as preserving the building, Lide is non-committal.
“I want the people of Haleyville to decide how they are best served in this case,” he said. “I don’t think that the building’s architect has any relevant standing in this local matter.”
Taylor has no intention of giving up.
“Everyone wants to have one thing that’s always there,” she said. “If it goes away, we lose a last connection to a place that’s been home to a lot of people.”
Sunseri said it’s a tough situation.
“You can’t please everybody,” he said. “And it’s my belief and the council’s belief that we’re doing the best we can for Haleyville.”