Dr. Bronner started negotiations with AmSouth Bank to become a tenant in the Tower early in 1992, and was swapping drafts of a Letter of Intent by late February. The early deal called for a 20-year lease with two 5-year options held by the bank. AmSouth was to have its downtown branch on the first floor and would locate its regional banking operations (the big deal) on the second floor. It would also rent some 10,000 square feet on the 21st floor alongside the Capital City Club, to house a board room and a training center. The total lease was to encompass 50,000 square feet of net area, which would approach ten percent of the structure’s entire net rentable.
What’s In A Sign
I was not privileged to know how Dr. Bronner managed to enlist AmSouth as a tenant in his new building–they were almost committed when I was brought into the picture. It was obvious from the outset that bank officials saw this as an opportunity to cause Dr. Bronner’s huge new building to become known as the AmSouth Tower and thus enhance the bank’s local corporate image at little cost. Dr. Bronner, on the other hand, wanted his building called “the RSA Tower”. As you will read later on, much conflict ensued over this image issue as each side tugged and pulled at the other.
AmSouth’s ranking official in its Property Section was courtly Henry Long, Jr., a senior vice president stationed in the corporate headquarters at Birmingham. The ranking local official was the belligerent Michael Graves, Vice President of the Central Alabama Region, known locally as “City President of AmSouth”. One of my earliest recollections of the image conflict took place in Bronner’s office on May 7, 1992, when “Mister Henry” and Mike Graves set forth the bank’s demands for signs, parking spaces, etc.
The biggest confrontation of that day concerned the AmSouth sign that was to be placed on top of the building. I had previously learned from Bronner that he had already agreed to allow the bank name to be placed atop the Tower, and I had warned him that the bank had in mind a huge sign (the Union Bank letters on top of its existing building on Commerce Street were 14 feet high), and that this would forever stamp his building as an AmSouth property. Acting on my prior briefing, he told Long and Graves that the letters could not exceed six feet in height. On hearing this, Mike Graves screamed that such a minimal size was not acceptable and that the limitation would be a deal-breaker. With that said, he and Henry Long declared the meeting ended and they stormed out of Bronner’s office.
The RSA team sat there quietly, yours truly stunned, Bronner amused. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They’ll be back.” Sure enough, the two bank VIPs slunk back into the office a few minutes later and a six-foot sign limitation was accepted as a contract mandate. Much later in the project, as you will read, the light intensity of the sign became another major point of contention.
Another demand made by AmSouth at that meeting was a provision that there be no restaurant opening off the same main lobby that the bank faced. The RSA agreed to give its “best effort” to meet that request and thus evolved the two-lobby scheme with its black-walled security area that exists today and is referred to as the “burnt-can lobby”.
Delay Upon Delay
The most irritating part of AmSouth’s ascendancy to the Tower was the constant changing of bank officials. From our initial contact in 1992 until the bank’s occupancy in 1996, we dealt with four different city presidents, and each one presented an entirely different program on which we were to base a design. Their in-house planning group in Birmingham changed completely at least three times. Everyone believed AmSouth was downsizing to avoid a corporate takeover and, as a result of all this turmoil, PH&J was constantly delayed and was forced to revise schemes over and over. That procrastination, coupled with HH&N’s inability to complete the construction work, ultimately turned the bank’s occupancy into a desperate situation.
In June of 1995, things seemed to reach a crisis level, and on the 20th of that month, Ron Blount and I had a face-to-face confrontation in Birmingham with two AmSouth big shots, the courtly Henry Long and a Coker Barton. In the meeting, Long advised us that AmSouth had tentatively sold its 32 Commerce Street location to Bobby Lowder and his Colonial Bank empire. The sale was contingent on AmSouth’s move to its new quarters, and Colonial’s acquisition and occupancy of the old premises, by June 1st of 1996, a year from our meeting. Blount said we could make the date. I insisted that Huber-Hunt would never get the basic building ready within a year, regardless of how fast we planned the new bank space. The bewildered AmSouth officials did not know which of us to believe, but chose to base their course of action on Ron Blount’s advice.
Two months after our Birmingham encounter, AmSouth finally settled its programmatic confusion and PH&J crashed ahead on their tenant fit-out. Their lease of 10,000 square feet on the 22nd Floor was deleted and numerous other changes were made. The resultant tenant fit-out work was bid separately on December 20,1995, and HH&N was low bidder at $2.3 Million. Huber-Hunt bid the job extremely low because they could ill afford to allow another contractor to come onto the site and expose by comparison the slovenly way the balance of the work was being done.
Just as I had predicted, HH&N was unable to complete the AmSouth fit-out by the June 1st date, nor by July 1, or even by August 1. They did no better on the building exterior, the main lobby or the parking area, all of which had been under contract for three years by then. As each successive date was missed, AmSouth would beg permission from Bobby Lowder to remain in their old space a little longer. Finally, an August 15th date was stipulated, and Lowder declared that he would wait no longer than that. It was painfully obvious that neither the tenant work nor the base building would be ready by that mid-August deadline.
As the AmSouth drop-dead date approached, the situation became ever more critical. Lowder would not give in and we faced the prospect that AmSouth’s regional headquarters and downtown branch would be put on the sidewalk. Terrible lawsuits would abound in such event.
In desperation, Ron Blount and I directed HH&N to concentrate solely on the AmSouth space. To hell with everything else. I besieged City officials and secured special dispensation for the bank to move into an unfinished building. Thus it was that the downtown branch opened for business in its new quarters on August 12, three days before Lowder’s cut-off date. The regional headquarters had moved in four days earlier.
Doors were missing, painting was not complete, some trim was not up. The parking area for the bank’s customers was not even open. It was six months before the building was sufficiently ready for the next tenant to move in. AmSouth’s accommodations were so incomplete that RSA did not charge them any rent for nearly a year.
-Charles Humphries (“Peril and Intrigue Within Architecture”)