A.G. Gaston Motel: Historic Centerpiece of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
In 1951, businessman Dr. A.G. Gaston traveled to England for a church conference and learned that the National Baptist Sunday School and Training Union Congress were planning to convene in Birmingham, Alabama in 1954. He was excited and anxious at the same time, because he knew that there would not be lodging and restaurants in Birmingham that would welcome Black travelers.
He decided then and there that he would build a motel so that there would be a welcoming, safe place for Black people. Gaston wanted to build “first-class” lodging for Black people traveling through the segregated South. He hired architect Stanley B. Echols and the Steel City Construction Company to build the two-story motel, spending $300,000 to self-finance the project.
Since 2016 a coalition of partners has worked to preserve and protect the A.G. Gaston Motel. Two years later Mayor Randall Woodfin charged me, as director of cultural preservation, to lead the restoration work of the Gaston Motel. I was honored to pick up the baton from the preservation advocates and turn the City of Birmingham’s focus on restoring the Gaston Motel, while also convening stakeholders for the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
On June 30, 2022, a ribbon cutting marked the substantial completion of the restoration of the Gaston Motel. Special guests included Representative Terri Sewell, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, National Park Service (NPS) Deputy Director Lance Hatten and Mayor Woodfin, members of the Gaston family, and children from the A.G. Gaston Boy’s and Girl’s Club. Over 400 community members attended the celebration and got a first look at the permanent exhibit on the life and legacy of Dr. A. G. Gaston.
Learn more about the A.G. Gaston Motel's remarkable journey from a space of shelter and gathering to its rebirth in the Summer of 2023 when it reopened to the public.
A Space for Gathering, Activism, and Shelter
The A. G. Gaston Motel opened just in time for the June 22-27, 1954, Baptist convention, holding its official grand opening on July 1 that same year to great fanfare and community excitement. It boasted 32 air-conditioned rooms and was described as “one of the finest in the Southeast.” A Green Book site, the Gaston Motel hosted Black celebrities, politicians, athletes, and everyday travelers, including notables such as Johnny Mathis, Nina Simone, Jackie Robinson, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Dick Gregory, Constance Baker Motley, Joe Lewis, and Colin and Alma Powell.
The A.G. Gaston Motel is the site where Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. A.D. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and other Civil Rights leaders met in Room 30—the “War Room”–to strategize and plan “Project C,” the 1963 campaign of protests and marches. These actions in Birmingham changed the world and the course of the nation in granting civil and human rights to all citizens.
The Motel flourished until 1983 when Mr. Gaston converted it to senior housing, and closed for good in 1988 where it remained vacant and deteriorating, notwithstanding various redevelopment proposals that failed to materialize.
Preserving the A.G. Gaston Motel
The preservation of the A.G. Gaston Motel was championed by advocates who knew the significance of the historic site: Congresswoman Terri Sewell, Brent Leggs, the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, and senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, city leaders, and the local leaders of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District. In January 2017, two years after the site was included on the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, and due to the coalition's tireless advocacy, President Barack Obama established Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument through a presidential proclamation.
Today, the A.G. Gaston Motel is the key historic site of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, a collaborative partnership of the National Park Service and the City of Birmingham.
The City of Birmingham committed $10 million to restore the motel under the auspices of the site’s owner The Historical Preservation Authority. The city started in earnest in the fall of 2018 by creating a team to undertake the restoration, which included historic preservation architect, Jack Pyburn of Lord Aeck Sargent, who ensured the project adhered to the Secretary of Interior’s historic preservation standards. The A.G. Gaston Construction Company, a legacy company of Dr. Gaston, was contracted to undertake the restoration. The City’s internal team included Capital Projects, the Office of the City Attorney, the Mayor’s Office and unwavering support from executive leadership.
In March 2019, the restoration started with a mock-up phase designed to explore and understand the condition of the historic site. It examined layers of paint colors, original doors and windows, flooring and exterior wood panels. This preliminary work laid the foundation for the four-phase restoration. The Gaston Motel’s multi-phase restoration began in 2019 on the 1954 wing (owned by the National Park Service) of the motel. The 1954 wing restoration was completed in December of 2020, complete with the replica sign lighting for the historic motel as a central feature.
Preservation efforts continued in 2021 with the restoration of the 1968 wing (owned by the City of Birmingham) and courtyard. In addition, the Mellon Foundation awarded a $1.1 million grant to the City of Birmingham and funds from its “Humanities in Place” program supported the restoration of the interior coffee shop and original dining room, which now houses the A.G. Gaston exhibit and a catering kitchen. It is commendable that the restoration project was completed on time and on budget.
Open to the Public: The Next Chapter for the A.G. Gaston Motel.
The A.G. Gaston Motel opened to the public summer 2023 with National Park Service rangers from the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument providing the interpretive visitor experience. Visitors to the site experience standing in the courtyard where the Foot Soldiers gathered to receive directions from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other Civil Rights leaders on Project “C”. They will also view the exhibit on the life and legacy of Dr. A.G. Gaston.
Through collaboration with partners, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument preserves and interprets the events, stories, and places associated with the nonviolent struggle against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, during the mid-20th century. These events in 1963 propelled human and civil rights to the forefront of the American conscience. Today, the A.G. Gaston Motel is a place of reflection, restoration, and renewal. In this 60th commemoration year of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Movement, we seek to tell the full story of Birmingham’s struggle for equality through our historical lens and how the lessons serve as a blueprint for the future.
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