Standout Projects: Polishing the Mobile Skyline

On October 17, 1965, the Mobile Press-Register ran a full page ad: “Towering to a skyline-splitting height of 424 feet above the sidewalk, the exterior of the new First National Bank Tower will feature the ‘last word’ in modern architecture and design.” It still does.

Yesterday’s “last word” skyscraper is today’s RSA BankTrust Tower, a $50 million refurbishing with basement-to-roof renovations, building code modifications, and a 12-foot moonpie.

Staccato bursts from site jackhammers accentuate a status report. Construction workers are finishing pavement repairs; painters add color to sheetrock, and pristine restroom fixtures are as fresh as a porcelain daisy. The job is almost complete on Mobile’s second tallest office building.

“Our goal was twofold—gut and restore, ” says project spokesman Tracy Bassett, with the Montgomery architecture firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood.

“Almost everything was changed, updated, removed and replaced, ” he says. “All asbestos was eliminated and plumbing brought up to code. Cast iron pipes installed 40-plus years ago were replaced with modern plumbing, along with new air conditioning and roofing.

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“We knew it had potential. But we also knew it had to be brought up to code, ” Bassett says.

Today all outside entrances are sealed for flood and wind protection, and current fire proofing standards are implemented throughout the building. Carnival inspired artwork and color punctuates lobbies, hallways, even elevators.

Taking the lift is like being in a small art-deco chamber with the neon lighting of Mardi Gras illuminating your ascent. “RSA wanted this building to represent Mobile, ” the architect says.

Perched near the top of the 34-story building is a 12-foot tall, 350-pound facsimile of that Chattanooga-born Southern confection, a moonpie. Moonpies are a favorite throw at Mobile Mardi Gras parades and an emblem of the city’s carnival. On December 31 it lights the sky—literally—descending to earth as Mobilians count down to a New Year.

“The moonpie is operated by a cable-hoist system running almost the entire length of the building, ” says RSA’s Steve Timms. “The cables are removed after the New Year’s celebration, to prevent damage from wind and the moonpie can be retracted into a shelter in the event of a hurricane.”

Not much can top BankTrust’s electric moonpie, except maybe the Bienville Club, almost adjacent to it. Indeed, the views are spectacular from the club’s new windows. Bienville’s and the rest of the BankTrust building’s panes were removed, all 600 of them.

“Old windows were replaced with stronger, hurricane-resistant panes, ” Bassett adds. “It offers improved storm protection. And the blue tinted material glass keeps the building cooler, more energy efficient.”

Back in the day, when the skyscraper was built, energy efficiency was not the priority it is today. “Starting the project, we noticed the building had practically no external insulation, ” says Bassett. “The structure was basically a 34-story concrete shell coated with plaster.” That has changed. Insulation was added to every nook and cranny.

What will not change is the roof’s design. Speculation buzzed as to whether the tower would be crowned with a spire like two nearby RSA properties. “No, ” said Tims, adding “We will have special lightning schemes on the building during holidays and special events, similar to our other towers. There are some ‘surprises’ coming too. It will thoroughly tie into Mobile.”

“All things considered, the structure was in good shape physically, ” Timms says. “For its time, the designs and features were ingenious, allowing for a lot of flexibility.”

But five-decade-old technology must be updated. “Infrastructure and people comfort demanded by today’s tenants did not exist in the 60s, ” says Bassett. “We completely redid and rebuilt the electric grid and data network. The entire air conditioning system was redone.”

Once the site of the majestic 1853 U.S. Customhouse, the 107 St. Francis Street address has watched buildings and tenants come and go, but as of 2010 the tower is 75 leased, with the principle tenant its namesake BankTrust.

From Pollman’s Bakery on the ground floor to the Bienville Club on the cloud floor, there is as much reason for a trumpeting as when it opened in 1965, “the last word in modern architecture and design”—Part Two.

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Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.

By Emmett Burnett

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