By Lee Davis
Clyde Nelson was still a very young man in the 1920s, but he was already something of a legend in the Birmingham real estate business. He had built nearly $2 million worth of homes and become president of the Birmingham Real Estate Board.
Nelson had his sights on some land not far from Edgewood, a small suburb outside the Magic City. His project was to build perhaps a more glitzy neighborhood, as the name he proposed for it might imply. Nelson was going to call the new community Hollywood.
“He wanted an upscale suburb on the land east of Rosedale Park,” said Sheryl Spradling Summe, author of the book “Homewood: The Life of a City” and an expert on the city’s early years. “Nelson envisioned all the buildings in his development having a unified architectural design that would define the community.”
Nelson’s choice was the Spanish mission style, which had been in existence for centuries but had become popular again by 1900.
“The open style featured stucco exteriors with wrought iron detailing and was popular in wealthy and glamourous cities such as Coral Gables, Fla., and Hollywood, Calif.,” Summe said. “So that’s why he named it Hollywood.”
In today’s geography, the area stretched approximately from the U.S. 280 entrance ramp on Hollywood Boulevard to the intersection of U.S. 31.
Ironically, one of the key components of the Spanish mission look came because of the work of another Birmingham magnate, and the product didn’t come from Southern California.
John M. Harbert II – the founder of Harbert Engineering Co. (later Harbert Construction) and one of the new Hollywood’s first residents — looked to his South to find the wrought iron needed to complete the Spanish mission-style community.
“Harbert heard that New Orleans was renovating the French Quarter and was selling wrought iron,” Summe said. “So he and Clarence Lloyd went to New Orleans to buy some of the ornamental iron and have it shipped to Birmingham. Homeowners were allowed to buy it for cost.”
Even in the 1920s, the wrought iron in Hollywood had the feel of history. Most of it was forged in France in the 1800s, built especially for the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Many of the homes in Hollywood were designed by architect George P. Turner. His work is still in evidence today, particularly on such streets as Bonita Drive, Poinciana Drive and La Prado Place.
Not surprisingly, Lloyd bought the first house built in Hollywood, choosing a spot on Bonita Drive. He and his family would live there for the next 50 years. The Harbert family built a house nearby. Harbert’s young son, John III, attended Shades Cahaba Elementary School, which was at the intersection of U.S. 31, then known as the Montgomery Highway, and what is now Hollywood Boulevard. The school is still there today.
“That area was attractive because that road was a direct route for business into Birmingham,” Summe said. “I think the SoHo area which exists there today has much the same spirit as it did when the area was growing so rapidly in the 1920s.”
Every bit as much a promoter as a real estate developer, Nelson launched an elaborate campaign to attract homebuyers to Hollywood.
Summe said Nelson utilized full-page advertisements in the Birmingham newspapers and even brought in nationally known entertainers after the floor of a new home was completed.
Nelson also purchased a 40-seat bus that ran hourly from Twentieth Street to Second Avenue in downtown Birmingham that was free to all Hollywood homeowners.
To accommodate the recreation needs for his new developments, Nelson built Hollywood Country Club on Shades Valley Highway, now Lakeshore Drive. The facility had a clubhouse with the now familiar Spanish mission design and a large swimming pool. The building would undergo ownership changes through the decade and had most recently been a music hall when it was finally torn down after a fire in the 1980s.
“The club was a real hot spot for dining and dancing,” Summe said. “And it may have had one of the largest pools anywhere in Birmingham. It was truly a special place.”
By 1926, more than 150 people lived in Hollywood, and Lloyd and other leaders petitioned Jefferson County leaders to incorporate it into a town. Incorporation was finally granted on Dec. 1 of that year. An election was held the following January. Lloyd was chosen as mayor and five city councilmen were elected. Hollywood’s public safety and works department was a one-man police force and a one-man trash collector.
The new city worked hard to maintain its unique character. Ordinances were passed to require a minimum cost for any home to be built in the town limits, and all proposed architectural plans had to be approved by the city council. While the intent was to maintain the strict use of the Spanish mission style, as time went by, English Tudor and other high-class architectural options were allowed.
As Hollywood fought hard to maintain its separate identity, nearby communities had engaged in the process of merging into a single entity.
Edgewood, along with Rosedale Park and Grove Park, were forming the city of Homewood. The question of a merger immediately became a hot topic among Hollywood residents. In April of 1928, a town hall meeting was held to gauge sentiment about a possible merger, and a majority of attendees still resisted the idea.
By the next year, the tide had turned. In September, a petition was presented to the Homewood City Council to indicate interest in annexing Hollywood. Negotiations with Mayor Lloyd and other Hollywood officials began, and by November the transition had begun to make the community part of Homewood.
Hollywood was no longer an independent town, but most of its unique character remains to this day. Summe said that Homewood’s early diversity may have made it different from other Over the Mountain communities.
“Homewood was a coming together of some very diverse areas – from Hollywood to the predominately African-American Rosedale community – to become one growing city and community,” Summe said. “So much of what Homewood is today is forged in those early beginnings.”
And Clyde Nelson’s dream of the 1920s is a big part of it.