A monumental new sign at the intersection of Cahaba and Lane Park roads—the Gardens’ most-traveled path of arrival—celebrates Birmingham’s architectural heritage and botanical treasures.
By Mindy Keyes Black
This post is the first in a three-part series about the Gardens’ new signature sign. We invite you to enjoy parts one and three via the links at the end of the story.
Inspired by local stone- and steelwork and surrounded by plants native to the region, a new signature sign now greets Birmingham Botanical Gardens visitors approaching from Mountain Brook Village or U.S. Highways 31 and 280, pointing the way to the Gardens and setting the stage for what they will find within.
A project undertaken by the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens, the sign replaces a smaller, more utilitarian sign that stood for many years nearby on Lane Park Road and had to be removed to make way for much-needed storm drainage improvements. This new symbol of the Gardens was designed by landscape architect Cindy Tyler of Terra Design Studios, a nationally recognized firm known for its work with public garden spaces. Crafted from stone and aluminum washed to replicate the look of weathered steel, the new sign stands higher, for greater visibility, on an area often called “the Point” because of its location at the Gardens’ southernmost tip.
In addition to acknowledging Birmingham’s famed industrial days, the sign also recalls iconic stone columns of various heights found throughout the Gardens and Birmingham community, including a historical Cahaba Road column and signpost constructed from locally quarried stone as part of a public works program during the Great Depression. That column and other examples are located near the Gardens’ Lawler Gate leading to the Birmingham Zoo.
Tyler employed an asymmetrical design to create dynamic tension, balancing the tall column on the left with taller plantings on the right, leading the eye—and directing the visitor—to the right toward the Gardens.
Constructed this spring, the new sign honors the legacy of late Southern Living magazine Editor at Large Philip Morris, who led the way in curating Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ distinctive sculpture collection. During the 1980s, while the Gardens implemented master plan updates that reimagined its outdoor spaces as a series of distinct garden “rooms,” Morris helped oversee the process of enhancing individual gardens with art tailored to them.
During the next 15 years, with Morris’s guidance the Gardens saw the addition of artworks from the metal gazebo, or “topiary tempietto,” in the Dunn Formal Rose Garden and the multipart Granite Garden in Blount Plaza to Nike, Interlude, and the still-water Kayser Lily Pool in the Hill Garden; the reimagined Floral Clock in front of the Conservatory; Hare with Collar in the Bruno Vegetable Garden; and Echo, Genesis, and Loblolly in the Southern Living Garden.
Morris, an Oklahoma native recruited to Birmingham in 1969 to write about architecture for the three-year-old Southern Living, believed that art should reflect the spirit and character of its garden setting. “What we wanted was art that complemented the Gardens,” he once said. “The Gardens remained the most important thing.” He remained a volunteer and staunch supporter of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens throughout his life, leaving a generous bequest to the Friends upon his death in 2017.
Morris’s gift paved the way for the new sign, which is based on an initial idea by his former colleague and good friend John Floyd, the skilled horticulturist and longtime editor in chief of Southern Living who served as a driving force in the creation of the Southern Living Garden and oversaw the Gardens’ second master plan. Floyd, who passed away earlier this year, sketched his concept for the sign in 2018 after one of the first meetings of the Friends’ Capital Improvements Task Force, created to guide the latest master plan refresh. The sign became the committee’s first project, setting the tone for future planned enhancements.
“We set out to create a timeless design that reflects both Birmingham’s heritage and the spirit of the Gardens, both of which were so important to Philip and John,” says Friends Executive Director Tom Underwood. “This new signature signage celebrates their vision and lasting legacy. It also invites others to step into the Gardens and find their special place in it.”
“The sign is in many ways a tribute to two Southern Living legends who were equally passionate about elevating the Gardens and about encouraging Birminghamians to join them in supporting this community treasure,” says Friends Board Chair Wally Evans. “John was excited to honor his friend in this meaningful way and eager to create a sign of arrival that reflects the heritage—both architectural and botanical—of our region.”
The sign also represents the Friends’ ongoing commitment to enhancing the Gardens for the betterment of Birmingham, says Evans. “We are pleased to have once again been able to lead the way in funding and executing a significant capital project that will positively impact not only this City of Birmingham facility but also our city’s image and appearance for out-of-town visitors, an important tool for promoting economic development.”
Goodwyn Mills Cawood, one of the Southeast’s largest architecture and engineering firms, crafted the construction plans in response to Terra’s conceptual drawings. Birmingham-based architectural signage firm Fravert Services created and installed the sign, which features moss rock stonework by Iron City Stone. In June, Bright Future Electric completed the installation with the addition of energy-efficient LED lighting with a nighttime sensor.
“We capped off the design by working with Blackjack Horticulture on landscaping that showcases 12 native plants that reflect Birmingham through the seasons,” says Friends Director of Operations Jane Underwood, who managed the project. “While annual beds put on a show, they also require a lot of time and labor. Native plants need less maintenance and conserve water because they are well adapted to the growing conditions, so we are being efficient with our resources while also celebrating our native flora.
“Our goal was to make a statement: to let our visitors know that the garden they are about to explore is not one they could find anywhere but instead is of this community, region, and place,” she adds. “It serves as both a warm welcome and a sign of many good things to come.”
“We set out to create a timeless design that reflects both Birmingham’s heritage and the spirit of the Gardens.”
—Tom Underwood, Executive Director, Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Warm Welcome: A Three-Part Series about the Gardens’ New Signature Sign
Part One: A New Sign for the Gardens