Birmingham's Vulcan statue, often the butt of jokes, remains well-loved

Birmingham's Vulcan statue is a well-known icon: his massive head, his fearsome spear, his lack of pants

The statue goes by just one name: Vulcan.

Around this polite Southern metropolis, he's famous for his oversized head, manly beard, blacksmith's apron and fearsome spear he raises toward the sky.

There's also a risque little feature that likens him more to a Chippendales dancer than iron effigy named for the Roman god of fire and forge: those greenish buns of steel, bared for all to see.

Still, Vulcan is a beloved figure here, even if his semiclothed physique seems more appropriate for Renaissance Italy — or contemporary San Francisco — than genteel Birmingham.

Now 111 years old, the ungainly statue towers five stories over the southern edge of town from atop Red Mountain. He's the world's largest iron-ore statue, and among the nation's tallest, behind the Statue of Liberty.

In central Alabama, Vulcan is more than an icon; he's a member of the family, complete with his own foibles. Residents know that Vulcan stands for the region's work ethic and natural resources; a figure who hammers steel from the earth's raw materials. Birmingham's Iron Man.

But they also — ahem — gossip behind his back.

People have always wondered why Vulcan doesn't wear pants. Residents in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood joke that Vulcan is flashing them from on high. Years ago, one woman waged a losing campaign with bumper stickers urging, "Drape Vulcan."

A radio host once wrote a song about Vulcan's sturdy derriere. He called it "Moon over Homewood" and it remains a local cult classic.

The Vulcan Park and Museum sells Vulcan bobble-heads. But that's not all that shakes. Said cashier Connie Richards: "We call it the Vulcan bobble-head and bobble-buns."

Poor Vulcan: There have been so many slights, so many indignities.

For years, he might as well have been Humpty Dumpty. His parts sat disassembled at the county fairgrounds. His disembodied arm was a shameless advertising tool holding aloft ungodly merchandise, including ceramic ice cream cones, Lee jeans and a jar of Heinz pickles.

At the museum, people inevitably ask docent Gary Bostany about the apron-only garb. "Kids would ask, 'Why doesn't Vulcan wear pants?'" said Bostany, 62. "And I'd tell them: Because they didn't have AC and it got real hot near the forge when you made steel."

Vulcan was born the year before the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Birmingham's civic fathers wanted to promote Alabama but worried there wasn't enough time to build something of appropriately phenomenal size.

Italian immigrant and New Yorker Giuseppe Moretti agreed to design the forger as a way to celebrate the fact that the materials to make iron and steel — iron ore, limestone and coal — are found in the area. He made Vulcan's head oversized so that, viewed from the ground, the figure wouldn't look like today's Zippy the Pinhead.

Because there wasn't a building large enough in Birmingham to serve as his workshop, Moretti made the figure out of clay in a deserted cathedral in Passaic, N.J., shipping 21 pieces by train to Alabama. The parts were cast, then railroaded to St. Louis, where they were assembled just in time for the fair. Vulcan captured a grand prize.

But on the way home, disaster struck: Someone misplaced Vulcan's spear, which was never found. "Who knows?" Bostany said. "It might have ended up in some bar in Memphis."

Later, when his arms were reattached, the right one was put on backward, so it looked like Vulcan was flipping Birmingham a rude gesture. A smaller spear was forged, but it made Vulcan look more comical than masculine.

Then, during the Depression, the city fell back in love with Vulcan. They muscled him up Red Mountain, a former mining site where the materials to make the statue were unearthed.

In 1946, somebody envisioned another use for the city's alter ego: They replaced the spear with alternating neon torches for an auto safety program. Every day for 50 years, if no one died in a vehicle crash, Vulcan would hold aloft a green torch, viewable for miles. On the days when someone died, the torch turned red.

Over time, Vulcan began to fall apart, this time naturally. Officials worried his arm would drop off, so between 1999 and 2004, residents raised $40 million to renovate Vulcan — and even forge a new spear that matched the original in size.

But for Vulcan, the project led to one final insult: As the city sought $3 million in federal funds, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona asked fellow lawmakers, "Why would federal dollars pay for a face-lift of a Roman god in Alabama? Not one more federal dollar should be spent on this kind of foolishness."

Vulcan got $1 million anyway, and in the end became a new man, standing higher than ever atop a 124-foot-tall base.

Today, he's the most popular figure in town — even if he does resemble a creation from the cartoon "Super Mario Bros." A community group each year hands out Vulcan leadership awards — a tiny replica of Birmingham's leading man.

And a human-sized, sports-style mascot known as "V" is in much demand. (He has pants.)

But the old Vulcan still holds a special place in the heart of Jan Massie.

Years ago, when they were first courting, she and her late husband used to sneak kisses underneath the statue, before a viewing area in which all of Birmingham rolled out from beneath their feet.

Now, Massie works as a security officer for the museum. But come dusk, when she looks out toward Vulcan and his domain, she can still feel that first kiss.

Twitter: @jglionna

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