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Birmingham Architecture

by Ted Ligibel


From the mid-19th through early-20th century, thousands of people immigrated to northwest Ohio, notably to Toledo. These included French, German, Polish, Irish, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Lebanese, Syrian and Greek immigrants who settled here in response to the city's rapid industrialization and the promise of employment. In the 10 years between 1860 and 1870, the city's population jumped from 13,768 to 31,584.

Many of these were German and Irish immigrants but by 1900, the German and Irish populations had stabilized as Polish, Hungarian and Russian emigres flocked to the city. Ten years later, of the 168,500 residents of the city, 19 percent were foreign born, with thousands more claiming foreign birth for one or more parents.

Prior to the restrictive immigration laws and quotas imposed in the 1920s, Toledo's foreign-born population continued to increase steadily, including the Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Italian and Slovak populations.

By 1920, Toledo's population had reached 243,164, largely as a reflection of the expansion of these ethnic groups. As each new group arrived, elements of Old World culture—customs, traditions, folkways, foodways and other culturally based patterns, including architectural ideologies—were brought to the New World as well.

The various immigrant groups settled in specific, densely populated areas of the city, increasing the potential for ethnic architectural "form giving" or imitating architectural styles common in the old country. Perhaps the most prominent were the magnificent churches that served as the social and cultural focal points in most ethnic neighborhoods.

Toledo churches Saints Peter & Paul Catholic (German), Salem Lutheran (German), St. Patrick's Catholic (Irish), St. Hedwig Catholic (Polish), St. John's Lutheran (German), Magyar Reformed (Hungarian), St. Stephen's Catholic (Hungarian) and Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox, with their great towers, domes, and spires, readily identified the neighborhoods they served.

Ethnic icons found in statues, stained glass, and carvings were lavished throughout these buildings, both interior and exterior, thereby blending art and architecture. Indeed, it would be impossible to separate church art from church architecture, as the individual elements of the structure, both in form and detail, comprise the unified whole.

Other structures—public halls, commercial buildings, and schools—also featured ethnic-inspired architectural elements such as nationalistic motifs, ethnic insignia and origin-identifying name plaques.

The Birmingham most people recognize is both cultural and architectural. Although many might not recognize the name Birmingham, they would recognize two of its major institutions—Tony Packo's Cafe and the towers of St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church. Packo's, made internationally famous by actor Jamie Farr—better known as Corporal Klinger, of television's famous M*A*S*H series—is situated at the gateway to Birmingham, the intersection of Front and Consaul streets.

But the great domed towers of St. Stephen's Church provide the visual image with which Birmingham is most readily recognized. The towers soar over the neighborhood and are visible from several vantage points on both sides of the Maumee River. St. Stephen's is just one block east of Front Street, at the corner of Consaul and Genesee streets.

Ethnic-Inspired Architectural Heritage

Over a century has passed since Birmingham was established. In the ensuing decades, the area has grown into its present-day, dense urban neighborhood. The architectural juxtaposition of structures demonstrates its "pre-zon-ing regulation" period. The perimeter roads, most notably Front Street, originally were lined with shops, taverns, and industries. The largest industries were located between Front Street and the Maumee River, including two of the biggest employers of neighborhood workers—the National Malleable Castings Company and the Toledo Furnace Company, later Interlake Iron Company.

Along the east side of Front Street, a profusion of commercial businesses served the factory workers and their families. Now much of that industrial landscape, including the National Malleable and Toledo Furnace plants, has been demolished, along with entire sections of the commercial development that lined Front Street. In fact, Front Street from Paine Avenue northward has been completely cleared for widening as a primary artery providing access to the Port of Toledo.

During that process, scores of buildings were destroyed, including banks, union halls, taverns, stores, and homes. [Many of these structures were recorded on Ohio Historic Inventory forms just prior to their destruction; the forms are available at the Urban Affairs Center of the University of Toledo.] The interior residential streets are still a dense conglomeration of small-scale, one-and-a-half story homes, interspersed with corner stores, bakeries, churches, taverns, light industry, and buildings of similar "self-sufficient" use.

Construction slowed after World War I, and little new construction in the original neighborhood has occurred since World War II. Birmingham largely escaped the massive post-war public works and urban renewal programs that occurred in other Toledo areas.

Birmingham Terrace, a smaller public housing development, was built on Consaul Street, just east of St. Stephen's School, after the war. Much of turn-of-the-cen-tury Birmingham, therefore, remains intact and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the mid-1990s.

Birmingham's architecture, an urban architectural tradition, reflects the ethnicity of its resident/builders of Hungarian ancestry. The Hungarian influence is most predominant in three general categories: religious/educational, commercial, and residential structures.

Religious/Educational Structures

Direct ethnic influences in their architecture can be seen in three Birmingham buildings—St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church, St. Stephen's School, and Calvin United Church of Christ (the former Magyar Reformed Church). As noted, the building with the most identifiable ethnic influence is St. Stephen's Church, established in 1898. The increasing numbers of Hungarian immigrants made a larger church necessary. In 1914, the massive brick structure that stands at the corner of Genesee and Consaul streets was completed.

St. Stephen's Catholic church
Cornerstone of St. Stephen's Church

Some architectural elements are  immediately recognizable, including the over-size statue of St. Stephen, the first king and patron saint of Hungary that stands in front of the church, and the school's cornerstone, with its inscription in both Hungarian and English.

A series of six murals lines the walls of the side aisles; a seventh larger mural is behind the main altar. These murals, along with designs in the stained-glass windows flanking the aisles, depict the lives of Hungarian saints, including St. Stephen, his son St. Emery, St. Ladislaus, St. Elizabeth, and St. Margaret.

Each stained-glass window contains both the old royal loat-of-arms (shield) of Hungary as well as an America shield in the lovver   panel [ page 154 ]. The shields are also placed at the front entry of St. Stephen's School [page 155], juxtaposed with one another. The symbols are important cultural components as well, in that they express the often dual nature of immigrant loyalties in pre-war America, serving as constant reminders of the past and present.  Similarly, the  corner stone of St. Stephen's School, cut in both English and Hungarian, is a constant reminder of heritage and ethnicity.


St. Stephen's Churchstained glass window
St. Stephen's School entrance
Hungarian royal coat-of-arms (right) and an America shield


A more subtle form of ethnic inspiration is the design and mass of the church itself, highly influenced by Renaissance motifs, especially obvious when comparing St. Stephen's to major churches in Hungary. Buildings such as the famed St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church in central Budapest, with its classically-inspired facade and opposing towers, are clearly reflected in the design of St. Stephen's in Toledo [page 156].

The architect of St. Stephen's, Toledoan Joseph C. Huber, Jr., won an architectural competition for the design of the church. He described his choice of styles: "The architectural treatment is the Early Christian Basilican with cer-tain features of the churches of northern Italy and of spain from the early Renaissance; this style of architecture is also widely used in Hungary, where through the pást ages it has been adopted as the national church-style." Clearly, evén the architect was influenced by the ethnicity of place and chose a style befitting the architectural ideology of St. Stephen's parishioners.

St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church in central Budapest
Calvin United Church of Christ, 1946 Bakewell St.


Calvin United Church of Christ began in 1901 as the Magyar Reformed Church. The church, at the corner of Bakewell and Bogar streets, was designed by Toledo architect, T.W. Matz. Renaissance design, here highly Italian in derivation, was the favored stylistic motif. As with St. Stephen's, the cornerstone is inscribed in Hungarian. When completed in 1905, the chirch cost $13,000 and could seat church's ethnic composition through its use of the Hungarian coat of arms and the American shield in the same window. The same shields are also found on the inte-rior wall surfaces, painted atop the pilasters just below the ceiling.

Commercial Structures

Commercial structures were built on nearly every block and intersection throughout Birmingham, serving neighborhood needs for dry goods, shoes, tailoring, gro-ceries, legal advice, bakeries, cleaners, butchers, building supplies, taverns, restaurants, and recreational pursuits. As

late as 1958, the six-block section of Consaul Street, from Front Street to the railroad, contained twenty commercial structures, including four grocery/confectionery stores, three cleaners, five tavern/restaurants, two bowling alleys, one theater, and three building-supply companies.

The most identifiable ethnic marker is the use of actual surnames on streets and building facades. A number of Birmingham streets have such names, including Bogar, Magyar and Morovan streets. Several prominent commercial buildings feature names associated with Birmingham's founding.

The Juhasz building at 2026 Consaul, the Orosz building at 2126 Consaul [page 159], the Kolibar building, with its unusual paired oriel windows and tiled entry stoop, at 2044 Genesee [page 159], the Richardsonian Roman-esque Bertok building at 1920-24 Front St. [page 160], and the Playdium Tavern at 1956-58 Front St. [page 160], all fea-tured facade name plaques.The plaques identify each place as culturally bound to the area's predominant ethnic group.

At top, the Orosz building at2126 Consaul.
Center, detail of the Orosz building.
At bottom, the Kolibar building, 2044 Genesee, with its unusual paired oriel windows.
The Richardsonian Romanesque Bartok building at 1920-24 Front St.
The Playdium Tavern at 1956-58 Front St.

The most unusual of the several commercial struc-ture is the unique Playdium Tavern. Prominent immigrant John Strick built the Playdium in 1902. A natíve of Abauj County in northern Hungary, Strick emigrated in 1888, settling frist in cleveland and finally in toledo seven years later. Keenly interested in the socia1 welfare of his fellow Hungarians, he was an active participant in a variety of religious and secular activities in Cleveland and Toledo.

Hungarians in America describes Strick as"a very gen-erous contributor to the church as well as every other worth-while institution, and his participation in any welfare or cultural movement assured its success. 'It is not sur-prising that he built a large hall, originally known as Strick's Hall, to serve the social/cultural needs of his fellow immigrants. Strick's Hall became the secular counterpart to the church. The hall served not only as the major tavern of the neighborhood, but offered recreational amenities as well, including a second floor meeting hall with stage and balcony and a basement bowling alley.

According to Dr. Andrew Ludanyi, professor of his-tory at Ohio Northern University and an authority on Hungarian cullure in the New World, the very design and pale yellow brick color have direct, Old World Magyar antecedents. Indeed, the graceful arches with quoined surrounds on the second floor and the heavily Renaissance-inspired cornice are hallmarks of many public and religious structures in Hungary.

Close inspection, however, reveals the most remark-able aspect of Strick's Hall—that of its fantastic array of Hungarian ethnic symbols situated within the deteriorat-ing tin cornice at the building's roofline. Here, among Renaissance-inspired parapets and dormers, are the most revered symbols of Hungarian culture—the national coat-of-arms, the crown of St. Stephen, and the Hungarian cross.

Detail from the Playdium Tavern, formerly Strick's Hall, the national coat-of-arms, the crown of St. Stephen, and the Hungarian cross
Detail from the Playdium Tavern, cartouche with Hungarian cross at the center


The coat-of-arms dominates the central dormer on the Front Street facade, and features a shield which incorpo-rates the flag of Hungary with the Hungarian cross. Atop the shield is the crown of St. Stephen with its characteristic bent cross. Similarly, small cartouches located just below the cornice and dividing the window bays, feature the Hungarian cross at the center The impact of ethnicity as a "form giver" is nowhere more culturally-determined and evident than in this impor-tant building. And although this structure was probably architect-designed, there is no better example of ethnic-influenced vernacular architecture on a secular building in the area. Toledo architect David L. Stine, designer of the Lucas county Courthouse, the county jail and sheriff's residence, and Libby House, is believed to be the architect of Strick's Hall. Stine designed Strick's summer home on Lake Erie, hence the obvious connection.

Residential Structures

The homes of Birmingham are mostly modest, one-and-a-half story dwellings. About seventy-five percent are frame construction with twenty-five percent built of brick. Almost exclusively, the homes have gable fronts, with two windows and a door facing the street. Sometimes the door is centered, but more often it is offset, making the facade asymmetrical.

A 1907 Toledo Blade artiele described the homes:

Their homes are, as a rule, in [sic] cheaply built, one-story cottages, but, as an evidence of thrift. It is asserted ihat 250 of them are absolutely owned, or are being bought on the small payment plan by their occupants. The cottages are usually on small lots, many of them fronting unpaved and bottomless mud streets, in dose proximity to the smoke belching fadory chimneys. A few of the more industrious Magyars, who have had the advantage of several years' residence here, own two such cottages, occupying one and renting the other for $7 to $9 a month to some less fortunate countrymen.

Most of those cottages still exist, although the belching chimneys and unpaved streets no longer plague the neighborhood.

Fences were important in defining property bound-aries. Elaborate iron fences surrounded dozens of homes, even though they were on very small lots. Small plaques in the center of the gates reveal that  fences were cast by the T. Stewart Company of Cincinnati. Why so many were cast in Cincinnati and shipped to Birmingham is unknown.

Many of these fences, or their modern chain-link counterparts, remain today, giving Birmingham the highest proportion of yard fences in the city. Perhaps this was an expression of possession, a comment on the newfound right to own property. Many of Toledo's immigrants were tenant farmers in Hungary and owned no land, coming primarily from the poor agricultural region of northeastern Hungary . . . the counties of Abauj, Heves, Zemplen, and Gomor.

When the immigrants began to build homes, they logically chose a type that was not foreign but was also acceptable in their new environment. In this way they were able to retain certain cultural ties to their homeland. According to Hungarians in America, "The first immigrant families settled in Toledo in 1891. Around the 'Old Factory/ [National Malleable Castings Co.] soon a veritable little Hungarian village grew, consisting of characteristic Hungarian rural homes." Distinct similarities can be found by comparing Toledo's Magyar Street with a Street in the rural Hungarian village of Atany in northern Heves County.


One-and-a-half story homes in Birmingham
Elaborate iron fences line many Birmingham streets
At top, Magyar Street in Toledo. At bottom, Atany, in northern Heves County, Hungary

The size, scale, setback, roof type, fenestration, and piacement are strikingly alike.The unusual arrangement of houses on Magyar Street—two homes side by side with an open space in between—is found in Atany as well. This arrangement reflects the importance of yards in Hungarian village life, as noted in Proper Peasants: "Most domestic activities are performed in the living room in winter and in the kitchen or the yard in summer . . . liké boiling soap, making plum jam, drying fruit, rendering fat, pig sticking, and cooking for the festive meals are all done outside." Such residential grouping is not accidental, but is a subtle example of Old World, ethnic-based"form giving."

The most extraordinary parallel between the homes of Toledo and those in the northern Hungarian counties can be seen in a unique architectural form with no known antecedent in Toledo. This is the double-rounded arch found on five homes in Birmingham, four of which are on Whittemore Street. This unusual arrangement consists of two oversized archways, serving as a corner entry.

The main arch is on the facade and in three cases is a flattened, basket-handle shape; the other two are typical round arches. The side-facing arch is round-arched in all five instances. These homes are found at 222 Whittemore, 318 Whittemore (now obscured), 402 Whittemore and 404 Whittemore and at 2143 Bakewell [page 170].

At top, 222 Whittemore.
At bottom, 402 and 404 Whittemore Street.
2143 Bakewell St.

Round and flattened arches are found throughout Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and Austria, in some medieval homes in Budapest, many rural houses near the Austrian and Czechoslovakian borders, and on a Balatonakali farmhouse in Central Hungary.

These arches echo both earlier Romanesque forms and the prolific resurgence of the arch during the Renaissance. Round-arched motifs were preferred for both urban and rural, high style and vernacular, and domestic and public structures from the 1600s onward in Hungary.

Similar archways are found on homes in rural northern Hungary and on a larger scale throughout the country. Traditional house design is described in Proper Peasants:

Houses at Atany are one-story buildings, like those of other Hungarian villages. The walls are constructed of adobe and the roofs are thatched with reeds. Traditionally these houses consist of three or four rooms: a living room (which is also used for sleeping), a kitchen, a pantry, and a loft above. Usually one end of the building faces the street. The rooms are arranged linearly with the living room, "the House,"at the street end and the pantry at the other end with the kitchen in between. Many houses have a veranda on the entrance side of the building; thus people do not enter directly from the yard but through the veranda. Trom the veranda (or from the yard if there is no veranda) one enters the kitchen.

With only minor changes, this depiction of a Atany house could well be that of a house in Birmingham. The major attributes are virtually the same—one-story with a loft (our one-and-a-half story), adobe construction (our brick), street-facing gable, an entrance veranda, the living room at the street end, and primary entry into a room other than the living room.

The few changes include roofing material, entry into the dining or a family room (now) and larger veranda archways, with only two arches or openings at the immediate corner of the house rather than an arcade extending down the side. In the New World, the Atany kitchen has become the dining room; the pantry becomes the kitchen. Fences are also common in Atany, but are often made of vertical sticks placed very close together.

Ethnic tradition has played a major role in giving form to Birmingham's architectural heritage, as well as its broader cultural context. Examples of this ethnicity include, as Professor Ludanyi notes, "complex systems of mutual support linked directly to the neighborhood's cultural heritage ... family and friendship ties ... the personal concerns of a single person become those of many . . . neatly kept streets or [in] the numerous gardens . . . intricate embroidery that decorates the interiors of many local homes . . . preparation of traditional Hungarian foods ... holidays celebrated in honor and respect for one's ancestors . . . each church continues to hold Hungarian services ... a Hungarian dance troupe ... in both Byzantine Catholic and the Hungarian Catholic churches, a Christmas mummers play —hundreds of years old and brought over by the original immigrants—is performed each year . . . the annual local ethnic festival."

Other physical evidence of ethnic influence can be seen in the neighborhood as well—the whitewashed trees lining the 1800 block of Genesee Street, used as the processional route during the feast of Corpus Christi in October or the bas relief statues of Hungarian saints on the rear wall of the more recent addition to St. Stephen's School.

Architecture can be added to these ethnically inspired cultural legacies and traditions. Birmingham's churches, schools, businesses, and homes are a reflection of Old World architectural customs—a heritage transformed to conform to accepted American norms, yet retaining ethnic identity through form, color, design, detail, and placement. The architectural heritage of Birmingham is one of Toledo's most important cultural treasures representing an urban architectural legacy of extraordinary measure.



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