Friday, May 7, 2010

Moon Over Birmingham

Magnet # 236:  Vulcan Park & Museum

Material:  Pewter

Purchased By:  Me

What were they thinking? Okay, as Birmingham is a major steel producing town, creating a massive statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge and fire, for the town to enter in the 1904 World's Fair was a pretty good idea. But not putting pants on him? Well, that wasn't a good idea at all.

It was Guiseppe Moretti who designed the statue in 1903. Under his guidance, the city produced a massive 56-foot tall behemoth that is still the largest cast iron statue in the world.  The iron to make the figure was mined locally at Red Mountain and the entire statue ended up weighing about 120,000 pounds.  It was originally intended to be an even 50 feet tall, but when its creators learned of a 52 foot tall Buddha statue in Tokyo, they added another four feet to it.  And as for the dubious choice of clothing - or lack thereof?  Well, it's believed that the creators were following the example of traditional metal workers who labor in extremely hot conditions.  They wear a leather apron to protect them up front, but nothing in the back to prevent them from overheating.  Okay, that reasoning makes sense in practice, but why not take a little artistic license?  Vulcan's massive exposed rear was considered so offensive that the citizens of Birmingham refused to allow him to be displayed in their downtown after the fair was over, even though it had won a "Grand Prize".  So he was exiled to the Alabama State Fairgrounds, where he would spend the next 30 years.  He was painted with flesh colors on his skin and blue elsewhere for overalls.  As Vulcan's spear had gone missing, the promoters took the opportunity to charge companies to have him hold their products - anything from an ice cream come to a cola bottle and even a pickle.  And he was only seen on the few weeks when the fair was held each year.  It seemed as thought the iron giant had lost all respectability. 

But it wasn't over for Vulcan.  It was on this day in 1939 that a nine day festival kicked off dedicating him at his new home on Red Mountain, the very place his metal had come from.  A new spear was created for him to hold, he was given a new aluminum-tinted paint job, and placed atop a 124-foot sandstone pedestal. Five thousand people showed up for opening night.  Life was definitely looking up for the Roman deity.  In 1946, the statue became a little silly when his spear was taken away yet again and replaced with a lighted torch.  If there were no automobile fatalities, it remained green, but on those days when a terrible accident occurred, the light changed to red.  To celebrate the city's centenary, the statue was livened up with a new paint job in the shade of iron ore and a marble cover for his pedestal in 1971.  But in less than a couple of decades, the iron giant was showing cracks and was soon in danger of collapsing entirely, so once again Birmingham stepped up for their landmark.  The figure was taken down and repaired and the marble coverings were taken off of his pedestal during a restoration that lasted for five years.  In 2004, Vulcan and his new park reopened and it has become a very popular tourist attraction, bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Vulcan is now the city symbol of Birmingham, and I had the opportunity to visit him last year.  The drive up to the park was pretty hilly, and once we got there, there were still quite a few steps up to the pedestal.  So Vulcan really is on top of the city.  We didn't get a chance to travel up the elevator to walk around the observation deck and take in the panoramic view of the city or to walk through the museum, which tells of both the statue's history and that of Birmingham.  But I did run into the gift shop to pick up a few magnets, of course.  And some even had shots of the statue from both the front and the back.  I passed on those, but I thought this one was pretty nice.  I also noticed how Vulcan is placed so that it's not really easy to notice his exposed rear, and he has been angled so it's less visible to the city.  He also holds his spear high once again.  So if you're in the Magic City and have a chance to stop by and see this iron giant and his park for yourself, give it a try.  Just be careful what photos you take of him - you wouldn't want to get the wrong exposure (insert groans).

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