Montgomery's Webber Building sold for dollar, set for deconstruction

Published: May. 5, 2015 at 10:24 PM CDT|Updated: May. 6, 2015 at 3:26 AM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A week after being placed on the list of Alabama's 'Places in Peril', the sale and deconstruction of the historic Webber Building in downtown Montgomery was approved, per an agreement, at Tuesday evening's Montgomery City Council meeting.

The partially collapsed building located at 39 Perry Street will be sold for $1 to ELSAJA Dexter 71, LLC. The company owns the adjacent building along Perry Street at 71 Dexter Avenue and is said to have expertise in the area of building materials and reuse.

"This was a very difficult recommendation for me to make personally," said City of Montgomery Director of Development Mac McLeod, "and I'm certain it was also a very difficult decision for our Council to make." McLeod said the city has "had to wrestle with very real public safety and liability issues," because of the propped up structure.

The developers and City originally hoped to save the 150 year old building, originally known as the Montgomery Theatre but later as the Webber Department Store. It had been under renovation in 2014 with hopes of turning it into lofts and retail spaces. But while the multi-million dollar renovation was underway, a large portion of the outer wall collapsed.





The City took ownership in December and later determined it was not salvageable. The building where the words to what would later become the song 'Dixie' were written, had been offered to private developers for months at just a dollar, but no deal was ever finalized.

"No private developer could make the numbers work either, and no one wanted to take on the liability," McLeod said. "We simply could not make this one work. The cost was too high. Every one of them came to the conclusion that the cost far exceeded any kind of return they could possibly get. Plus, there were safety concerns regarding the structure."

After the deconstruction, ELSAJA Dexter is planning to try to save portions of the brick walls and is expected to include a plaza and information to recognize the building's history.

"Because they are the owner of other buildings to be renovated downtown, they have a strong vested interest to carry through on their commitment to manage the deconstruction responsibility and to maximize the amount of salvageable materials from it," McLeod said.

The agreement requires the buyer to deconstruct the building in a strategic way and to save materials such as timbers, cast iron, and masonry for use on site or in other downtown Montgomery locations.

Specifically not included in the purchase/sale agreement are about a dozen windows from the building that were removed before it partially collapsed. Those windows are being stored off-site and will be given to the Landmarks Foundation of Montgomery. The foundation will have the option of either auctioning the windows as part of a fundraiser or coming up with a creative use for the relics.

Despite being added to the 'Places in Peril' list, the designation does not come with any financial support. With the structural concerns, the city moved on the opportunity to work with a big name in downtown redevelopment to develop a new vision. The Webber Building is coming down but parts of it will live on.

ELSAJA Properties, LLC was formed in 2014 by Mark Buller, President and Founder of Marjam Supply, a national building materials supply company. Alabama is home to 8 Marjam locations.

Buller felt a connection with downtown Montgomery, especially along lower Dexter Avenue. ELSAJA Properties purchased 35 Dexter , 61 & 67 Dexter {The Concert Hall}, 71 Dexter { the former HL Green }, 39 Dexter {The Kress Building}, 52 Monroe {The historic Bakery Building} and One Court Square. After purchasing each of the buildings, ELSAJA Properties LLC entered into a rehabilitation agreement with the City of Montgomery.

"All they're doing is a purchase contract with a due diligence period to see what the cost would be to deconstruct it and do some other things but they own all the property that surrounds it. There are some plans to have a restaurant and a place that's surrounded by other buildings, they need a better entrance into that and having a green space there," said Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange. "We're very comfortable because they're spending $40-50 million renovating that area so we know they're going to spend quality time and quality dollars to some state that's the best use repurposing it."

The deconstruction should take three months.

ELSAJA Properties have a 15 day due diligence period to see if they want to move forward with the project and they can close on it seven days after that.

BACKGROUND (Provided by the City of Montgomery)


The Montgomery Theater-Webber Building is a revered theater (1860-1907) with Civil War and early Civil Rights connections.

The Montgomery Theater—also known as the Webber Building—is the sole antebellum theater remaining in Alabama and one of only a few still standing nationwide. In fact, it ranks alongside Charleston's Dock Street Theater and Wilmington's Thalian Hall–both beautifully restored amid thriving downtown historic areas–as one of the three oldest theater buildings in the South. The imposing Italianate-style structure located at the busy corner of North Perry and Monroe Streets occupies a unique and significant place in local, state, and national history. Today, despite having partially collapsed in 2014, its handsome brick façade still hints at the building's glamorous past.

In October 1860, the theater opened. Designed by architect and engineer Daniel Cram, the structure's façade, embellished by brick corbelling and ornamental cast-iron lintels, was laid by skilled slaves who, according to local lore, were aided by enslaved female hod-carriers. The frescoed walls of the interior were executed by European-born artisans Peter Schmidt and Frank O'Brien.

For the next forty-seven years, the Montgomery Theater attracted the biggest stars of the time. One of the first performers there was John Wilkes Booth who would gain notoriety as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington. Surviving the Civil War, the Montgomery Theater was the scene of perhaps the first "sit-in" in the United States, as a group of African-Americans attempted to test the 1875 Civil Rights Act by purchasing tickets to the area reserved for "whites only" rather than sitting in the gallery reserved for black theater-goers. When they refused to move, mayhem broke out.

On November 13, 1907, the curtain came down on the last performance as the Grand Theater on Dexter Avenue prepared to open. The Montgomery Theater was soon thereafter renovated for commercial use and housed a number of department stores throughout the 20th century.

In the 1930s, Walter Webber acquired the business and renamed it "Webber's," a name now familiar to many. In the 1950s, the first suburban "mall" opened and others followed. These, together with urban renewal and the Interstate, brought serious changes to downtown as businesses closed. Webber's struggled until the early years of the 21st century, until finally the building, in dire need of repairs, was put on the market by the owners.

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