Old Building, New Life

Commercial spaces can be  artfully reborn.

By Joe O’Donnell 

Photography by Chuck St. John


One of the things that sets Birmingham apart from other cities is the inventory of historic buildings that make this place a fascinating combination of old and new. That is not something you always see on city streets, but you can see it here. And when you dive a little deeper, you begin to see just how fascinating an old place can be.

That sense of wonder at the adaptive reuse of an aging commercial space was part of what drove Dr. Jenny Sobera to move her Village Dermatology practice and Skin For Life boutique from its Mountain Brook office up the hill to the old Union Carbide building in Office Park on Cahaba Road.

The move took place last June. The renovation has created a state-of-the-art dermatology center with better parking, a separate pediatric reception area, an on-site pharmacy, and beautiful views of Mountain Brook Village from the large windows in the treatment rooms.

“The renovated facility was designed as a uniquely urban space that reflects Village Dermatology’s natural approach to healthy skin. We are committed to staying conveniently located in Mountain Brook Village and are thankful to our patients and customers for their support in our continued growth,” says Sobera.

A board-certified dermatologist, Sobera opened Village Dermatology in 2008 after renovating the familiar Iron Art Building at 2901 Cahaba Road. Village Dermatology offers medical, surgical, and cosmetic dermatology for both pediatric and adult patients with a commitment to achieve healthy skin for life. In addition to its medical facility, the Mountain Brook location includes the Skin For Life boutique, laser center, and aesthetician services.

Sobera’s team has grown to include Dr. Kristy Curl, board-certified dermatologist; Dr. Meg Cherry, board-certified dermatologist; and Shelley Winzeler, physician’s assistant.

What the team did to the space is fascinating. Built to exacting standards in the 1950s and seemingly constructed to withstand a nuclear blast from the Soviet Union, the building’s interior has been softened with warm lighting and comfortable furnishing, but the substantial infrastructure is still visible in the reinforced ceilings and solid brick exterior.

Village Dermatology after renovation

Village Dermatology after renovation

The renovation has given Sobera exactly what she wanted in a new office for her practice. Village Builders, owned by Phillip Houston, and Elizabeth Wilson Designs worked on the renovation.

Owner, builder and designer worked closely as a team focused on providing Village Dermatology with a quality space, equipped to function and evolve in the ever changing medical and cosmetic field.

“While any renovation has it’s challenges, the overall experience was great. Our talented designer, Elizabeth Wilson, did an amazing job taking this historic building and transforming it into a current, beautiful and comfortable space. I wanted her to leave the space as ‘original’ as possible. And she definitely accomplished that. Philip Houston, owner of Village Park Builders, worked closely with Elizabeth and myself to make sure that all of our goals were met. In the end, I’m very proud of Village Dermatology’s new home,” Dr. Sobrera says.

“My goal was to create a place that patients actually enjoy visiting. As a patient myself, I value quality care, convenience and efficiency. But a calm, aesthetically pleasing office can definitely make a positive impact. While we continue to provide top notch care, we definitely have improved convenience and efficiency. The ease and close proximity of parking has been one of the most popular improvements. Parents have enjoyed our separate Pediatric Waiting Room. Having a separate area for our skin care products has been well received by our patients. It is just so easy to run in and buy a product. We were able to expand our Aesthetic and Laser Center. This has allowed us to add more treatments as well as offer a private waiting area. Our medical and surgical suites are more spacious and offer beautiful views of Mountain Brook Village.”

Philip Houston, owner of Village Park Builders, says “It was a privilege working with Dr. Sobera and Elizabeth Wilson. We all have a great respect for this grand, incredibly well constructed building. But Dr. Sobera had the clear vision from the beginning to create a current and modern space yet stay true to the building’s origin.”

According to Elizabeth Wilson, owner of Elizabeth Wilson Designs, the building has wonderful architectural bones and an abundance of natural light which was not being maximized previously: “Jenny and I chose to take full advantage of the light and treetop views of Mountain Brook Village. We added height, texture and character in keeping with the building to the retail space and main waiting room by exposing the bottom of the concrete deck above.  Administrative and retail spaces were separated on the first floor from the clinical and spa areas on the second floor. This resulted in ease of access for walk-in retail customers,  efficiency for the doctors and still provided some future growth space. Existing glazed wall tile in the corridors provided a starting point for our color palette. We strived to provide clean, soothing finishes which evoke calm and relaxation for clients without being sterile.  We avoided visual clutter, but provided layers of texture through materials and color to alert the senses.  Also, the mixture of unique light fixtures became an important element in the development of our design.”

Hollis, Wright, Clay & Vail, P.C. conference center after renovation

Hollis, Wright, Clay & Vail, P.C. conference center after renovation

The travel distance from Mountain Brook to Morris Avenue in downtown Birmingham is not all that substantial, but you can see the passage of time within the historic buildings in both locales.

The law firm Hollis, Wright, Clay & Vail, P.C. was looking for a new home. “The firm was looking for a fresh look after 12 years in traditional downtown commercial space. We had growth needs and a desire to own our space, and we wanted to build a mock courtroom that we could call our own.  Sam Carroll of Graham & Co. was the firm’s longtime real estate broker, and he helped us find the space,” says partner Josh Wright.

“One of our partners drove down Morris  looking for available space. This building had roughly 10,000 square feet, so it was the correct size. Moreover, as the building was completely gutted, we could use our vision with no outside influences,” Wright says.

Morris Avenue has a rich history as one of the city’s original distribution hubs for Birmingham commerce. Unique to the law firm’s new home is Morris Avenue frontage, as well as a visual presence on the 22nd Street viaduct. “With both entrances, there were opportunities to double brand the firm,” Wright says.

In 2013, Wright Historic Holdings purchased the 2201 Morris Avenue warehouse building, which was originally built in 1889. The building appears as the eighth building on the National Register of Historic Places in the city.

The Morris Avenue/First Avenue North Historic District is one of Birmingham’s—and the South’s—oldest and most important warehouse and job market districts. Buildings located in this historic district make up one of the largest and most complete groupings of late 19th– and early 20th-century buildings in the state of Alabama. The 2201 Morris Avenue building features all brick exterior walls, 20-foot ceilings on the first floor, 12-foot ceilings on the second floor, an arched recessed entry way, arched windows, and stone sills throughout.

The building was used as a warehouse for multiple companies between 1889 and 1939, including multiple produce companies, grain wholesalers, and packing companies. In 1939, Samuel Spina purchased the building and was issued a building permit in 1942 for recovery and remodeling of the brick warehouse. Spina Importing Co., a wholesale grocery store, occupied the space until 1963. The building was then occupied by United Food, Inc., from 1965 to 1979.

Archived photo of the Union Carbide building

Archived photo of the Union Carbide building

In the 1980s, a portion of the building became office space for an architecture firm that occupied the space for several years. The office was then completely gutted and unoccupied until purchased by Wright Historic Holdings in 2013.

The firm took occupancy of the building after construction was completed in December 2013. The warehouse, designed in contemporary industrial style, includes a mezzanine, suspended glass walkways, an exposed library, spiral staircases, three all glass conference rooms, custom built barn doors, stained concrete flooring, a dry erase wall, and a trial/moot courtroom. The architect for the project was Lissy Frese of Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds. (Interestingly, Frese actually worked in the building in the 1980s.) The builders hired to refurbish the building were Kyle Tyree and Michael Burroughs of Locke Engineering Company.

One Response to “Old Building, New Life”

  1. JOAN M. NEWELL (MIMI) says:


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