East Lake Atheneum/St. Thomas on the Hill located at 4th Avenue South and 82nd Street in East Lake, Alabama
The 79,000 square foot East Lake Atheneum, later named St. Thomas on the Hill, sat on 11 acres covering a full city block in the heart of South East Lake at 4th Avenue South and 82nd Street. It rose abruptly from a modest residential area on a steep hill at the foot of Red Mountain. This building was rich with history as one of East Birmingham’s oldest buildings. It was initially built to house a private seminary of learning for young ladies and later to house an existing orphanage that eventually became the East Lake Atheneum Orphan’s Home. A substantial expansion in 1957, which included a chapel, presents an unusual two, three and four-story look as the old and new buildings were connected. The building, in which classrooms had been converted to offices and conference rooms and included dormitories, served as a civil defense shelter during World War II. A separate seven-story retirement community called Villa Maria I was erected around the same year on the back section of the property. It remains an active retirement community as well as the newer addition of a 5 story retirement community called the Villa Maria II which sits next to the original Villa Maria I. Both of these retirement communities are still owned by the Catholic Diocese.
The orphanage, later called St. Thomas Home on the Hill, ceased operating in 1971 and the Diocese moved their administrative and family services office there from the Five Points South area of Birmingham in 1973.
The East Lake Atheneum school was founded by Dr. Solomon Palmer, a leading educator of the South, and a one-time state superintendent of education. The land was donated by the East Lake Land Company. The word Atheneum is often used in the names of libraries or institutions for literary or scientific study.
Number 62 trolley advertising the East Lake Atheneum school opening
The school was locally promoted by the East Lake Land Company, a number of public-spirited men of Birmingham and the community of East Lake as a whole. It was chartered by the legislature on December 5, 1890. The East Lake suburb would be annexed into Birmingham 20 years later during the great annexation push of 1910.
Many of the school’s trustees served were also trustees of Howard College. Howard College would later become Sanford University and would abandon their East Lake campus in favor of their newly built campus in Homewood, AL in 1957.
The first board of trustees for the East Lake Atheneum included Robert Jemison, Solomon Palmer, A. D. Smith, Dr. J. H. Phillips, W. H. Wood, S. L. Robertson, R. G. Hewitt, M. V. Henry, C. C. Jones, J. H. Finch, James Van Hoose, Henry H. Brown and James Wilson.
The charter declared its objects to be the “establishment, organization and maintenance of an institution of learning of high grade for the education of young women, in the arts, sciences, and practical industries.”
The first session opened October 7, 1890, with an enrollment of 180 students. The main building, a large brick, and stone Romanesque-style classroom and dormitory building was completed in 1892 and 212 girls entered the school the next Fall. The stone was taken from a local quarry less than a mile away at Ruffner Mountain. The building was heated throughout by steam and had a chapel, recitation, dining and enough bedrooms to accommodate 150 to 200 pupils.
Ten to twelve experienced teachers taught preparatory, classical, scientific, normal, musical, art, elocution, stenography and industrial courses were offered. The school had to close briefly due to the 1893 financial panic.
Dr. Palmer continued as its head until his death May 15, 1896. He was succeeded by Rev. J. B. Cumming, who served for two years, followed by Dr. W. S. Weissinger.
In 1900 the school closed permanently, and the property passed into the hands of the Sisters of Charity of the Roman Catholic Church. The Sisters changed the use and name of the facility, turning it into an orphanage which continued to operate until 1971.
The orphanage was called the St. Thomas Home on the Hill. When the orphanage closed in 1971, the building was used for the offices of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham (officially called the Catholic Life Center and later Catholic Family Services) until they moved to their new headquarters. For a number of years, the facility sat empty until 2001 when the property was purchased by the Birmingham City Schools for $1.6M. The historic buildings, which had fallen into disrepair were razed and a new school was built which opened as Ossie Ware Mitchell Middle School in 2006.
All that remains of the East Lake Antheneum/St. Thomas on the Hill are old photo’s and the memories of the people who have passed through its halls.