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Two Tales of Modern Urban Architecture in the South

Mid-twentieth century modern buildings once flourished in two Southern cities. Thanks to its location in Miami Beach, art deco has prospered in recent decades. But modernism faces a sadder fate in Montgomery, Ala.

Grove Street apartments in Montgomery, Ala.
The Grove Street apartments in Montgomery, Ala.
David Kidd/Governing
The Grove Court Apartments in Montgomery, Ala., were once considered a fashionable address for servicemen returning from World War II. Built in 1947, the apartment complex is the city’s sole example of the international style of architecture. A flat roof, cantilevered balconies, corner windows and lack of ornamentation set the Grove Court Apartments apart from anything else in this small Southern state capital. When they were completed, the buildings won an American Institute of Architects Award and were twice featured in the pages of Progressive Architecture magazine. 

But by the 1970s the architectural gem had fallen out of favor and into disrepair. For years, neighbors have been complaining to the city about the deteriorating condition of the long-abandoned apartment complex. The buildings were set for demolition a decade ago, but the promise of new ownership put that on hold. Several developers have since expressed interest, but none have followed through with their promises of rehabilitation. 

After repeated requests that something be done, nearby property owners filed a lawsuit in February seeking demolition of the decaying buildings. The suit argues that the city has neglected to enforce existing codes to punish landlords and remove dangerous properties that invite crime and endanger the community. The building’s listing on the historic register will not save it from the wrecking ball.

Estimates to raze the structure range from $400,000 to $700,000, depending on environmental issues that may be encountered. Neighbors say they are in favor of historic preservation, but the Grove Court complex is too far deteriorated to save the single example of international-style architecture in Alabama’s capitol city. Seven hundred miles to the south, similar old buildings not only survive, but thrive. 


The Miami Beach Architectural District, also known as the Miami Art Deco District.

The Miami Beach Architectural District, also known as the Miami Art Deco District, encompasses 960 historic buildings. The seaside city is home to the highest concentration of art deco buildings in the world. Like the International style of architecture, art deco has its roots in Europe. They were both a reaction to the overly ornate designs of the 19th century, choosing instead to celebrate a sleek, geometric modernism. 

As has happened to the Grove Court Apartments in Montgomery, the deco dinosaurs of Miami Beach lost their allure over time. By the 1970s, developers were poised to push them out of the way in favor of new high-rise condos. The architectural gems would have been lost forever without the efforts of a small group of citizen activists who found beauty in the aging facades. Together they established the Miami Preservation League in 1976 in order to preserve, protect and promote “the architectural, cultural, social and environmental integrity of Miami Beach and the surrounding areas.” Today, Miami Beach is arguably best known for its architectural revival, drawing visitors from around the world. 

The same cannot be said of Montgomery’s example of Internationalism, which has plunged in value because of neglect. For what it will cost to tear down Grove Court, you could buy a historic one-bedroom condo on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach.

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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