At Auburn University’s renowned architecture program, the Rural Studio, students turn trash into treasure as a matter of course. In their buildings for residents of Alabama’s Black Belt, glass bottles become windows and stacked carpet tiles serve as insulated walls. But a recent project—part of the school’s collaboration with Perry County to revitalize a historic park—takes the tradition of using reclaimed materials to vertiginous new heights.
The idea to build a birding tower had been brewing among students since 2001, when the Rural Studio began working with Perry Lakes Park, built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. It wasn’t until 2004—once separate teams had completed a pavilion, outhouses, and a bridge that provided access to the proposed tower site—that the park was ready for a student team to take on the project. “We had no plan, so we began walking the trails,” team member Natalie Butts says. “When the bridge team saw us, they said, ‘Hey, have you checked out that abandoned fire tower by the side of the road?’” Soon she, Adrienne Brady, Paul Howard, and Coley Mulcahy stood white-knuckled on top of a 100-foot-tall tower of galvanized steel trusses whose purpose as a lookout for forest fires had long expired. Trained in the art of being bold, they called the Alabama Forestry Commission and asked how much a decommissioned tower might cost. “They ended up saying they’d give us one for a dollar,” Butts says. “It felt like someone had just handed us a present.”
It took the team 15 days to level the colossal structure, including four 22-foot columns weighing 250 pounds. But just as the tower came down, financial concerns shot up, as most of the $20,000 budget had funded the construction of a 270-foot boardwalk leading to the tower. To raise additional money, students advertised the sale of individual stairs and platforms in local papers, generating funds that nearly matched the original budget. “The top platform went for $1,000,” Butts says. “And we sold it twice.”
Just as the original tower builders had done in 1938, students used ropes, pulleys, and muscle alone to erect the structure, adding stairs, viewing platforms, a handrail, and safety panels. Providing a rare opportunity to observe birds as they live in their nests, the Perry Lakes Birding Tower now stands as the tallest bird-watching post in the country. “Small communities are sometimes overlooked by big ideas because people don’t think we’re cap-able of accepting them,” says Johnny Lee Flowers, former president of the Alabama Association of County Commissioners (and owner of step number nine). “But I believe you’re as large as you think you are—and to have this tower in Perry County is an example of thinking large.”
Students themselves never doubted the county, but they did face down other uncertainties. Initially they weren’t sure visitors would be willing to climb 100 feet. But in early focus-group discussions, an 85-year-old enthusiast quashed the concern. “She said she wanted to get that high before she died,” Butts says. “She wanted to see what the birds see.”