Alabama pretends it had a dirigible mooring mast on a hotel.

A video posted by This is Alabama pretends that Birmingham’s Thomas Jefferson building had a tower intended as a mooring mast for dirigibles.

It didn’t.

Thomas Jefferson Building "Dirigible Tower - Birmingham, Alabama

Which is not to say Birmingham does not have a connection to the zeppelin craze of the 1920’s.

It certainly does.

The tower was built in 1929 as a publicity stunt to gain attention for the new hotel by capitalizing on the worldwide fascination with airships inspired by the success of Graf Zeppelin, which crossed the Atlantic in 1928 and made a round-the-world flight in 1929.

And if Birmingham wants to celebrate civic pride by promoting this connection to a fascinating time in aviation history, good for Birmingham!

Postcard of Hotel Thomas Jefferson

Postcard of Hotel Thomas Jefferson. (Tichnor Brothers Collection Location, Boston Public Library)

Birmingham was not alone in trying to capture the public’s love of airships in the 1920s and 1930s. Several buildings around the United States installed “dirigible mooring masts” as publicity stunts during that era. The most famous, of course, is the one atop New York’s Empire State Building, but there is also one in Chicago (which I discussed in a piece for Chicago’s NPR affiliate WBEZ: “Zeppelin Poseurs: Why Chicago’s Airship Dreams Never Took Off“) and even in Buffalo, New York.

But while these were great marketing tools, they would have been disastrous mooring masts.

The spindly little structure on Birmingham’s building was never actually intended as a mooring mast for dirigibles, which place tremendous structural loads on their mooring masts; a 776-foot airship like Graf Zeppelin acts like a giant sail, and the slightest wind against such a tremendous surface puts a huge load on anything to which it is attached. The mooring mast used to secure Britain’s R.101, for example — which is shown in the Alabama video — could withstand a force of thirty tons and was secured to eight pieces of concrete that were each 12 feet square and embedded six feet deep in the ground, and the mast itself was a massive structure. It also had an elevator (lift) to carry passengers up and down the mast.

Cardington Airship Mast

The airship mast at Cardington, England with R.101

Diagram of Cardington mast

Diagram of Cardington mast

The skinny tower in Birmingham could never have withstood the loads exerted by an airship.

Spindly tower at Thomas Jefferson Building

Spindly tower at Thomas Jefferson Building

I found the following photo of the structure posted by an urban explorer; it is easy to see that an airship would have ripped this “mast” off the building in the slightest wind, assuming the thin middle section of the tower didn’t fail first, which seems likely.

Urban explorers at Birmingham's Thomas Jefferson building

Nor does this “mooring mast” have any way for passengers to embark or disembark; there isn’t so much as a ladder connecting the top of the mast to the roof of the building.

But Birmingham, Buffalo, and other cities can take pride in their desire to be seen on the cutting edge of technology and to associate themselves with the future — even if only for the purpose of public relations.

Meanwhile, enjoy this great video from the folks at This is Alabama, and congratulations to Birmingham on the renovation of this beautiful old building.

Thomas Jefferson building's dirigible tower

Have you ever wondered what the tiny structure on top of Birmingham's Thomas Jefferson Tower is for?

Posted by This is Alabama on Tuesday, February 21, 2017

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