Image courtesy of the Birmingham Historical Society.
0612 JM K Mountain Brook SchoolA rendering for the Mountain Brook School, today's Mountain Brook Elementary, from August 1928.
When Mountain Brook Elementary celebrates its 80th anniversary this May, we will recognize not just the longevity of one of our fine elementary schools, but celebrate the story of one of our oldest, and most treasured buildings. Robert Jemison, who’s company Jemison & Company is responsible for the development of Mountain Brook Estates, gave 11 acres for the construction of Mountain Brook Elementary as part of their development plan for the area in 1928. The Jefferson County School Board was responsible for the school at the time and oversaw the process. In 1929, the design that was created by county architects Denham & Denham was completed. The new school consisted of eight rooms. Village landscape architect William H. Kessler planned the athletic fields and playground. Once there was a central school in the area for students to attend, students no longer went to school at Shades Cahaba. Mountain Brook Elementary became the second consolidated school in the growing Shades Valley area.
Since construction was not completed when the school year began that fall, students were taught temporarily in four rooms above what is now Gilchrist’s until the school was ready. The beautiful English Tudor styled building cost approximately $45,000, and it welcomed 143 students serving primary through junior high grades. The English Tudor style complemented the beautiful homes that Jemison was building in his Mountain Brook Estates development.
Mary Alice Beatty Carmichael, who graduated from MBE in 1951, and her husband Donald were both students at Mountain Brook. Mrs Carmichael remembers that there was just the one wing to the building, and that when the windows were open, “you could hear the nearby horses neighing”. “There was still lots of farmland around at the time,” she said. The school served grades 1-8 when she was there, and she said that if you did not live in the county, but wanted to attend, you could pay to attend MBE, which was still a county school at the time. She remembers several students from Homewood and also from the city of Birmingham who were paying students. Mrs. Carmichael also said that a memory of her husband Donald’s is that boys who were very well behaved and made good grades were allowed to leave school to go cut the grass or do other work during the school day. “Boys worked really hard to get good grades so they could get out of school!” she said. There were also
strict rules at school. “Spit balls could get you suspended and the next worse offense was chewing gum,” she said.
In 1959, the City of Mountain Brook took over control of the school from the Birmingham Board of Education and created their own Board. As the number of young families continued to move to Mountain Brook, many of them moved to the newer areas of Cherokee Bend and Brookwood Forest. The number of school-aged children began declining in the Mountain Brook Elementary area of town, and in the early 1970’s, there was talk of closing MBE and moving all of the students to the newer elementary schools or one consolidated elementary school where the Junior High is. The Junior High would have moved to the same campus as the High School. One of the residents that became involved in the effort to keep MBE open was Mary Alice Carmichael.
“In August of 1971, I heard rumors that the City was going to close the elementary school and sell the property. There was talk of a gas station and condominiums,” Carmichael said. “This was unacceptable to me. We had moved our family to Canterbury Rd so that our children could go to the elementary school and walk to school,” she said. Mrs. Carmichael called then Mayor of Mountain Brook, Allan Rushton, to ask him if the rumors were true. He said the City was considering it, and that it would come up for a public vote in November. Mrs. Carmichael and her husband worked to organize a group of parents from their neighborhood. They also got an engineer, an attorney, Real Estate professionals, and past PTA presidents to help get the word out. The engineers explained that MBE, with its wooden beams, was a safer structure during a fire than a newer building with steel beams. The group also looked at demographic trends and other information to make their case before a city board. They made their case from many angles including the real estate tax revenue the city would get as property values continued to rise with new families moving in. When the measure came to a vote in November, it was voted down and the school remained open. Mrs. Carmichael said it was a huge lesson for her. “If you don’t like something, you can change City Hall’s mind if you work hard enough.”