Tag Archives: Bell building

John Durham, the Bell Building, and A New Era

There’s a lot of talk these days about downtown revitalization and the future of Montgomery. The city government has pushed its chips almost entirely onto the square betting that downtown economic development will lift the rest of the city. There are plenty of people eager to talk to you about the future of downtown, and they’ve got architectural sketches and demographic surveys to back up their sales pitch.

But not as many people want to talk about the past. I don’t mean the fact that there were slave markets there. And I don’t mean the type of nostalgia that drives people to want to have a street fair or a downtown soap box derby race.

Diane McWhorter hinted at what I mean in her op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago. Writing with great insight about her native Birmingham, she wrote

Yet the evil segregationist archetype is fixed in the popular mind as the villainous housewife of “The Help” or the cretinous mob of “Django Unchained” — nobody we’d ever know, or certainly ever be.

But the disquieting reality is that the conflict was between not good and evil, but good and normal. The brute racism that today seems like mass social insanity was a “way of life” practiced by ordinary “good” people.

But in my particular reflections on the recent history of downtown Montgomery, I’m not thinking about the ethical judgment necessitated by civil rights. I’m just thinking about how regular folks, overlooked folks, did keep businesses downtown, even though the surrounding shops were shuttered, leaving entire blocks looking like a bomb had gone off.

One such merchant was John Durham.

Until January 1, 2013, Durham ran a watch repair shop in the Bell Building on Montgomery Street. Today, when walking by, I noticed that his shop was empty. Mr. Durham was inside, making one last sweep of the place before closing the door behind him for good.

I didn’t know he was closing. I stopped in to let him know that we’d miss seeing him in there, peering through a jeweler’s loupe into a beautiful set of meticulously arranged gears.

He offered me a jug of hydrochloric acid, not knowing how tempted I was to take him up on it and cart around the dangerous liquid that he had used for some process related to gold plating.

I didn’t tell him that we had briefly blogged about his shop, encouraging people to take their watches there. I didn’t tell him that, although I had never used his services (and don’t even wear a watch), that it warmed my heart to see him at work. I didn’t talk about how I was sad that cell phones had reduced watches to luxury status symbols for the rich, nor did I express admiration for the details and focus that an artisan must have to work with tiny machines that measure our lives in such discrete increments.

No, instead I told him that we’d all miss him and wished him the best in his retirement. He is, after all, in his 90s and he said that he had plenty of housework to catch up on.

I don’t honestly know if Durham is a nice guy or not. I never heard anything negative about him. But it’s interesting how my mind valorized Durham’s longevity, his commitment to his work, the generational and technological divide that he represented. I would love to be so passionate about my craft that I continue to work on it into my life’s ninth decade.

Alvin Benn, himself an elderly icon of Montgomery, wrote an indispensable story about Durham for the Montgomery Advertiser on July 25, 2010. For the moment, it is online at this Sidney Lanier website. But if the operators of the site take it down, it’ll disappear in the impenetrable archives of the corporation that owns the Advertiser. The article is good, as most of Benn’s feature stories and profiles are. It’s the reason I didn’t try to interview Durham before. It contains plenty of info about his 65-year career fixing watches, his 70 years in Montgomery, his 40 years in the Bell Building.

At the Bell Building today, I felt lucky to have run into Durham before he left for the last time. I held the door for him as he carted the hydrochloric acid to his minivan, saying that he thought some auto parts people might could use it — something about car batteries.

“Arched Victory” by Sunny Paulk

I looked in at his empty shop, where he used to have some really cool pocket watches, and little velvet cases, and a set of intricate tools. I looked at the Bell Building, which is over 100 years old and currently for sale. I thought about the old guy around the corner that runs the engraving shop, which may also be an endangered business as people just order plaques and trophies off the Internet.

There’s something both sad and beautiful about the sole proprietorship run by a single person with no successor. When the person ceases to engage in commerce, the business goes away. People get old. People stop wearing watches.

Durham Watch Service didn’t have a website. It didn’t have a Facebook page. It almost never advertised. But it had a loyal customer base who respected the craft of someone who was incredibly skilled. And now there’s an empty place on the ground floor of the Bell Building on Montgomery Street.

Downtown Montgomery will carry on, with minor league baseball, some hotels, a ton of bars and over-priced restaurants serving mid-grade food to convention attendees and tourists looking to tweet photos of themselves standing next to something or other about civil rights or the Civil War. But hopefully, people will take a minute and look up at the Bell Building and think about how small merchants used to make things and provide services to folks.

The Bell Building and The Herald

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Read all about it in The Herald

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.

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The Beauvoir Club, circa 1907

ASL pamphlet

Would this convince you to quit drinking?

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.