The Bell Building downtown at the corner of Montgomery and Lee streets is a beautiful old landmark, a slightly decrepit and faded place that stands in marked contrast to the ugly turquoise splendor of the RSA buildings. It doesn’t have the exquisite detailing of some of the architecture closer to the Court Street fountain, but then again it’s not empty like those buildings. It has a marble entryway and brass elevators and a delightful mail slot that runs the height of the building, so you can have the pleasure of putting your letters in with a neat “snick” and hearing them tumble down, click, thump, to the post boxes on the first floor. Some people worry that their mail will get stuck between floors if they post it this way, but for me this has become the preferred mailing method – a little extra journey that makes even the mundane paying of bills feel special and baroque.
2010 will be the 100th year of the Bell Building. This past spring the Montgomery County Historical Society’s newsletter, The Herald, published an article about the history of the Bell Building (download it by clicking on the thumbnail image above). Turns out the 12th floor was once home to the Beauvoir Club (a name almost certainly inspired by the Jefferson Davis homestead), one of Montgomery’s premiere drinking establishments. The building also housed (in suite 508) the local headquarters of the Anti-Saloon League (great website there – check out the Lincoln-Lee Legion Pledge – love that boys who signed the pledge were called “Lincolns” and girls were called “Willards”). I know so little about the temperance movement other than the usual Carrie Nation stuff (how amazing is it that she described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus”?), but it is pretty delightful to imagine drunken gentlemen carousing only seven floors above a collection of thin-lipped preachy types sorting through piles of pamphlets and newsletters.
For about 40 years, the Bell Building elevators were operated by a man named Ulysses Pride – the kind of name that would raise an eyebrow if you were anyone but Thomas Pynchon and used it for a character in your novel, but he was as real and is pictured in The Herald’s article. He retired when the elevators became automated, and I wonder if he was sad or relieved or some mix of both. What must it be like to spend your entire professional life riding up and down in a reflective metal box?
The article got me interested in the Montgomery County Historical Society, the organization that publishes The Herald. Sadly, only a few of their back issues are available on their website – but what is there is plenty fascinating, including the story of how the Court Street Fountain got built, in which the author repeatedly refers to the Montgomery Advertiser as “Old Grandma Advertiser.” Also it turns out that there was a Civil War prison near what is now Tallapoosa Street – more than 1,200 Federal soldiers died there and were buried in Oakwood. I had no idea, and question why there’s no marker available to commemorate the site of so many deaths.