Rescuing and revitalizing the structures in Montgomery’s Cottage Hill area, one of the city’s most historic spots, should have positive effects on both MGM’s image and its economy.
Cottage Hill, a once-vibrant residential area, was an identifiable location during the earliest days of Montgomery. “There were some really grand houses up and down Goldthwaite and up and down Clayton as well,” said Collier Neeley, Executive Director of The Landmarks Foundation.
A roundabout at a well-traveled route known as Five Points—where North and South Goldthwaite meet Clayton Street, Mobile Street and Montgomery Street—is part of the heritage. “Five Points is the intersection of those major roads coming from the west into downtown,” Neeley said. The fire station located at this roundabout, a nearly 90-year-old structure, is a continuing reminder of the neighborhood’s significance. “The fire station was one of the first fire stations in the city,” Neeley said. In an earlier time, fire stations started out as private companies, and residents paid fees to keep them running. “As cities grew, it became more efficient to put fire departments in city government,” Neeley added. “It shows you the importance of that neighborhood because it did have a fire department.”
Not only were Cottage Hill and Five Points pivotal to early city history, they also played a role in the Civil Rights Movement. During the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, marchers came down Montgomery Street as they headed to the state capitol. “It’s on the Civil Rights Trail,” Neeley said, as he expressed appreciation for new investments in the Cottage Hill area.
A redevelopment of the fire station is in the hands of Stephanie Reynolds and her mother, Anne Jordan-Reynolds, who purchased the structure in September 2019 and are turning it into an event space, Airbnb lodging and a chocolate-production facility. A Montgomery native, Reynolds first noticed the fire station as a student studying Civil Rights history. “I never dreamed at that time I would have an opportunity to be an owner,” she said. Though she’d heard that a fire station had been at this location since the 1890s, she added, “This structure dates to the 1930s.” She also cited its place in Civil Rights history as part of the value of its preservation. “The location on the trail is vitally important.”
The Airbnb lodging space first went up for rent in March 2020, and Reynolds is working out the occupancy licensing for event space. The chocolate-production facility is a follow-through on a venture she and her mother shared in Haiti, where they started a production company to support the country’s economy. Reynolds lived in Haiti from 2016 to 2018, as they partnered with another company to expand the facility. Now back in Montgomery, they plan to continue chocolate production, and they’ll be sourcing vanilla beans and cacao through a vanilla and cacao cooperative in Northern Haiti.
Across the street from the fire department is another historic structure with four connected storefronts. “The Eli Capilouto buildings were some of the earliest commercial buildings in that part of town,” Neeley said. Andrew Szymanski and Will O’Connor, partners in Hilltop Development Group, have taken on the task of redeveloping this North Goldthwaite Street property.
Szymanski noted that neither he nor O’Connor are from this area but decided that if they were going to stay in Montgomery at this point in their careers, they wanted to be invested in the city. “We saw a great opportunity to do that with the buildings up in Cottage Hill,” he said. “The buildings were very raw. All but one of them had no power, no electrical, no plumbing. They were shells.”
At the time Hilltop Development Group made the purchase, the space was being used by a previous owner as storage. The goal now is to bring the storefronts back to their original look and feel while maintaining their interesting architectural features. “All of the renovation we’re doing is to restore them to their former glory,” Szymanski said. The location is about a quarter mile from The National Memorial for Peace and Justice on Caroline Street. “We’re excited to be part of the revitalization of that whole area,” Szymanski said.
In addition to the real estate side of their efforts to rehab the property and secure tenants, Szymanski and O’Connor have also launched a small business side. In light of economic disruptions related to COVID-19, he said, “We thought that the market for potential tenants was pretty minimal. We decided we would start our own small business.”
Accordingly, they’ll open Hilltop Coffee Co. in one of the spaces in early 2021. “Hopefully, we’ll be serving coffee for people coming to the Memorial,” he said. They are also developing another business that will be announced later. In addition, Seville at Hilltop, a salon previously on Fairview Avenue, opened, and Lorraine’s Cookies Created for Community is another new business in the location.
As the capital city moves full speed into the future, local efforts to preserve and re-energize pieces of its past continue to inspire while also creating economic opportunities.
BACK TO LIFE
“All of the renovation we’re doing is to restore them to their former glory. We’re excited to be part of the revitalization of that whole area.” -Andrew Szymanski.