This area was long known to travelers for its “big spring” which was a reliable source of fresh water. There were some half-hearted attempts at settlement but an abundance of mosquitoes and black bears sent homesteaders elsewhere. John Hunt, a Revolutionary War veteran, however persevered in 1805. Hunt did not have the money to register his claim properly and “Hunt’s Spring” and much surrounding land were gobbled up by a Georgian planter and lawyer named LeRoy Pope for $23 an acre. The energetic Pope laid out streets, built a house on the village’s highest hill and got his town named the County seat for Madison County that had been formed in 1808 and named for the newly sworn in fourth President of the United States, James Madison. Pope named the town Twickeham after the estate of his distant relative, the celebrated English satiric poet, Alexander Pope. The name never caught on with the newcomers who arrived to live in the town and the territorial legislature named the town after the squatter, John Hunt.
Huntsville grew rapidly on the back of King Cotton as the surrounding fields could yield a thousand pounds of the crop per acre. The town was peppered with the offices of those involved in the cotton trade - factors and lawyers and bankers. During harvest season Huntsville would be overrun with carts and wagons of cotton farmers bringing their crops in to be graded and auctioned off. The entire west side of Court Square at the center of town was reserved for business on “Cotton Row.”
As a frontier metropolis Huntsville hosted the Alabama constitutional convention to hammer out the details pursuant to statehood in 1819. When Alabama was accepted into the Union as the 22nd state Huntsville was designated the temporary capital. Here, Alabama’s first governor was inaugurated and its first legislature convened.
In 1855, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was constructed through Huntsville, becoming the first railway to link the Atlantic seacoast with the lower Mississippi River. The Civil War, during which Huntsville was used as a Union base of operations after the town fell in 1863, put a crimp on progress but after the war the area became a center for cotton textile mills and a building boom took place that lasted from the 1890s until the Great Depression of the 1930s. During that time other industries and crops became prominent, most notably watercress. So much of the semi-aquatic vegetable was cultivated in the 1940s that the area was known as the “Watercress Capital of the World.”
Still, by 1940 Huntsville was still a small town of some 13,000 people. With the coming of World War II the government built three chemical munitions plants southwest of the city, employing 20,000 personnel. When the war ended the plants were mothballed and designated for redevelopment. One attempt was by the Keller Motor Company but only 18 of their innovative automobiles were ever produced before the death of George D. Keller brought an end to production. In 1950 the United States Army brought its Ordnance Guided Missile Center to the abandoned plants under the leadership of Wernher von Braun, acknowledged as the “greatest rocket scientist of the 20th century.” The work in Huntsville laid the foundation for America’s space program and earned the city the nickname “The Rocket City.”
Today, Huntsville’s population tops 180,000 but we’ll begin our walking tour at the site more than 200 years ago when the population was just one - where John Hunt shook off the mosquitoes and shooed the bears and built a cabin...
1. Big Spring Park
Williams Avenue and Monroe Street
This is the largest limestone spring in Alabama, with a daily flow of between seven and 20 million gallons of water. Landmarks scattered around the park are gifts to the city from around the world, many from foreign nationals who studied at the Ordnance Guided Missile Center in Huntsville. Among them are a 1903 light beacon and a 1929 fog bell from Norway, a bench from Great Britain and a sundial from Germany. The striking red “friendship bridge” was a gift from Japanese Major General Mikio Kimata along with 60 Yoshino Cherry trees.
THE BUILDING IN THE PARK OVERLOOKING THE LAGOON IS...
2. Huntsville Museum of Art
300 Church Street SW
The museum was established in 1970 and held its first exhibition in 1973, still without a facility of its own. The collection, divided into American and regional art and world art, moved into the Von Braun Civic Center (located on the opposite side of the lagoon) when it opened in 1975 and relocated into its own facility here in 1998. Today the 2,522-piece permanent collection forms the basis for several exhibitions each year and features the largest privately owned, permanent collection of art by American women in the country.
FROM THE CENTER OF THE PARK, FACING THE LAGOON, TURN RIGHT AND FOLLOW THE PATH ACROSS CHURCH STREET INTO CONSTITUTION HALL PARK.
3. Fearn Canal
Constitution Hall Park at Church Street
In 1821 the Indian Creek navigation Company, with Thomas Fearn at the helm, began digging a canal here and three years later Huntsville was linked to the Tennessee River. The canal was phased out after the arrival of the railroads and its remains formed the foundation for the park.
CONTINUE STRAIGHT TO COURT SQUARE.
4. Madison County Courthouse
The town was laid out in a grid pattern beginning in 1810 with the construction of a small brick courthouse on this site. It looked out on an assortment of frame and brick stores around the square which took about fifty years to fill up. This International-style courthouse opened in 1967, the fourth to occupy the site.
TURN RIGHT AND BEGIN WALKING COUNTER-CLOCKWISE AROUND COURT SQUARE.
5. First National Bank
216 Westside Square
The Bank of the State of Alabama was established by the legislature in 1823 at the then-capital of Cahawba. Branches were set up in Montgomery, Mobile and Decatur in 1832. The Huntsville branch was created in 1835 and established in this grand Greek Revival temple fronted by an Ionic portico. Scandals an a nationwide economic panic in 1837 sunk the state bank and in 1856 the First National Bank was established here. The bank would be one of the three pillars of today’s Birmingham-based Regions Bank in 1971 and banking operations would be conducted inside until 2010, making this one of the longest continually operating bank buildings in America. It served as a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War, and once held a rifle owned by Frank James of the notorious James Gang as collateral for bail money when he was incarcerated across the street in the Madison County Jail.
In the middle of the block, in a small brick building, was the Planters and Merchants Bank of Huntsville that took its first deposits on October 17, 1817, becoming the first bank in Alabama. Chartered under the jurisdiction of the Mississippi Territory the bank was shuttered during Alabama statehood in 1825.
TURN LEFT ON SOUTHSIDE SQUARE.
6. Harrison Brothers Hardware
124 Southside Square
James and Daniel Harrison went into business in Huntsville in 1879 when the brothers began selling tobacco in a small shop on Jefferson Street. The Harrisons moved to this location in 1897 and over the years their stock evolved from tobacco through crockery, furniture, jewelry, appliances and finally into hardware. Draped in success, they expanded into the adjoining building in 1902. The Harrison family operated the store until 1983 but the business did not die with the last Harrison. The buildings were purchased by the nonprofit Historic Huntsville Foundation and renovated, but not as a museum but as an operating store staffed by volunteers. Today Harrison Brothers is the oldest operating hardware store in Alabama.
TURN LEFT ON EASTSIDE SQUARE.
7. Schiffman Building
223 Eastside Square
This uniform block of Federal-style brick buildings was disturbed in 1895 when architect George W. Thompson of Nashville transformed the end of one of those structures into an interpretation of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. Based on the stylings of Henry Hobson Richardson, the most influential American architect of the late 19th century, the building displays such trademarks as rough-cut stone, wide arches and corner towers.
In 1905 the building was purchased by German-born Isaac Schiffman, a cotton broker and investor. Three years earlier, in an apartment in the building, Tallulah Bankhead was born into a political family that included her grandfather John, a United States Senator, and her father William who would go on to become Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. At the age of 15, Tallulah convinced her parents to let her go to New York City where she embarked on a 50-year performing career that spanned the theater, the cinema, radio and television. She would become even more celebrated for he exploits outside the spotlight than on stage and camera.
8. Huntsville Inn
221 Eastside Square
This elegant brick structure played host on June 2, 1819 to President James Monroe and his entourage while on a three-day tour of the Alabama territory as it prepared to become a state. When Hunstville was tabbed as the first temporary capital, the First Alabama Legislature convened on October 25, 1819. Centered above the entrance of the symmetrical dormered facade is a three-part Palladian window. The arched entrance with sidelights is accessed by a graceful double staircase.
9. Milligan Block
201-203 East Side Square
This commercial block from 1900 shows an abundance of Colonial Revival detailing including, from top down, a modillion block cornice, keystones over Romanesque-styled windows, pedimented doors and street level windows with fanlights.
TURN LEFT ON NORTHSIDE SQUARE AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO JEFFERSON STREET. ON THE OPPOSITE CORNER IS...
10. Henderson National Bank
118 South Jefferson Street
This Art Moderne vault was designed in 1948 by Warren, Knight and Davis of Birmingham and stands as the only example of the style in Huntsville. The exterior has survived virtually unaltered. From his base in Troy, Fox Henderson was president of a passel of banks, including the family-owned Henderson National Bank. In 1881, at the precocious age of 28, Henderson and his brother Jere purchased their first bank, Pike County, which they re-named Farmers and Merchants National Bank. Another brother, Charles, would become governor of Alabama in 1914.
CROSS THE INTERSECTION ONTO SPRING STREET AND FOLLOW IT AS IT BENDS TO THE RIGHT AND BECOMES SPRAGINS AVENUE. CONTINUE TO CLINTON STREET.
11. Hotel Russel Erskine
123 West Clinton Avenue at Spragins Street
Albert Russel Erskine was born in Huntsville in 1871 and carved out a successful business career with the American Cotton Company and the Underwood Typewriter Company among others before joining the Studebaker Motor Company in South Bend, Indiana in 1911. By 1915 he was president, guiding the automobile maker into one of the leading players in the industry. When plans for Huntsville’s first major hotel were hatched in the 1920s, Erskine invested $10,000 in his hometown project and the finished 12-story, Neo-Georgian skyscraper was named in his honor. With Studebaker riding high the Great Depression that began in October 1929 took car sales crashing with the economy. ERskine was slow to pull back on production, however, and Studebaker found itself short of cash and went into bankruptcy in March 1933. Three months later, saddled with both his company’s and his own mounting debts, Russel Erskine put a bullet in his heart. The hotel now serves as apartments for the elderly.
TURN RIGHT ON CLINTON AVENUE.
12. Terry-Hutchens Building
102 West Clinton Avenue at Jefferson Street
This seven-story building, constructed for the Tennessee Valley Bank in 1926, was the first structure in Huntsville to utilize a steel frame with non-load bearing walls. J.M. McKee designed the 85-foot high Gothic Revival tower, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2002 the golden brick building received a complete makeover into residential and commercial space.
13. Struve-Hay Building
117-123 North Jefferson Street at Holmes Avenue
Herr Struve was an active developer around the turn of the 19th century, erecting atleastfour large structures, including this corner brick building from 1900. It originally boasted a cast iron facade on the ground level and the decorative corner tower is capped by a red tile roof.
TURN RIGHT ON HOLMES AVENUE.
14. United States Courthouse and Post Office
101 East Holmes Avenue
Funds for this federal building with post office and courthouse were provided in 1932 by the Works Progress Administration, the only Great Depression relief funds that flowed into Huntsville for construction. The stripped down classicism of the design reflects the popularity of Art Deco style popular for government buildings in the era. The three-story building of buff brick is augmented by a central limestone projection with engaged pilasters with simple Tuscan capitals. Inside the courtroom is a mural by Xavier Gonzalez, part of another Depression-era initiative to hire American artists.
15. Yarbrough Hotel
127-129 North Washington Street at Holmes Avenue
The four-story Neo-Georgian Yarbrough Hotel opened in 1924 to service business travelers to Huntsville. Anyone looking for a banquet hall or ballroom could look elsewhere. The building is marked by decorative brickwork and a bracketed cornice. The building trundles on as office space.
16. Times Building
Green Street and Holmes Avenue
The Huntsville Times, the leading newspaper of northern Alabama for many decades, published its first editions from this corner in a tottering shack on March 23, 1910. The story goes that when it rained an employee was forced to hold an umbrella under the leaky roof to keep the presses dry. The paper moved on to better digs but was back in 1928, constructing this Renaissance Revival tower, roundly considered the finest building in Huntsville. Reuben H. Hunt, one of the most prolific architects in the country and working out of Chattanooga, drew up the plans. It was the town’s first high-rise building and was originally only supposed to have eleven floors but when plans for the 12-story Hotel Russel Erskine were announced during construction another story was tacked onto the Times Building but the already installed elevator only reached the 11th floor. The Times departed for a more modern facility outside of downtown in 1955 where it continues to publish into its second century.
TURN RIGHT ON GREEN STREET.
17. First United Methodist Church
120 Green Street
The first Methodists in Huntsville were ministered to by circuit-riding preachers until 1832 when this land was acquired for a church that was raised in 1834. The original sanctuary was burned by mistake by Union soldiers during the Civil War. The current Romanesque-styled structure was dedicated by 1874.
TURN RIGHT ON RANDOLPH AVENUE AND WALK DOWN A HALF-BLOCK.
18. Randolph Street Church of Christ
210 Randolph Avenue
This congregation traces its roots back to courthouse meetings in 1883, conducted by James A. Harding, evangelist and founder of Harding College and David Lipscomb College. Within a few years $1,800 had been raised to buy this lot and 100,000 bricks were carted to the site to begin construction on this gospel-flavored church. The first gospel meeting was held in November 1889 and in 1900 members began to refer to themselves as the Church of Christ.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK TO GREEN STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
19. Church Of The Nativity, Episcopal
208 Eustis Avenue at Green Street
This congregation organized in December of 1842 and with the Christmas season approaching the name “Church of the Nativity” was selected. This ground was purchased in 1845 and the first church building, crafted of local brick, was holding services in August of 1847. The parish prospered quickly and scarcely ten years later noted church architects Frank Wills and Henry Dudley of New York were retained to construct a new sanctuary. The new brick church with a soaring 151-foot spire, was hailed as the finest Gothic Revival building in the South, was dedicated on Easter Eve, 1859. The cost of $37,500 was covered solely by pew rentals to the church membership - 53 strong. The original church stood next door until it was razed in 1878; the Bibb Chapel in the complex was consecrated in 1888.
20. Weeden House Museum
300 Gates Avenue at Green Street
Henry C. Bradford, a prosperous merchant from Nashville, constructed this imposing Federal-style mansion as a showplace on the Alabama frontier in 1819. Bradford’s economic fortunes turned for the worse, however, and he shortly moved on to Texas. The elegant seat found a steady succession of prominent owners, however, until 1845 when William Weeden moved his family here. Weeden died unexpectedly on a business trip to New Orleans the following year but is family would stay until 1956. Most famous among the Weedens was artist and poet Maria Howard Weeden who gained renown for her depictions of rural Southern life. The house is owned today by the City of Huntsville which operates it as a museum with many of her works on display.
TURN RIGHT ON GATES AVENUE AND WALK TWO BLOCKS TO MADISON STREET.
21. Hundley House
401 Madison Street at Gates Avenue
Oscar Richard Hundley was a long-time Huntsville attorney who was elevated to the Federal bench in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt. He erected several investment properties around town; this eclectic Victorian dwelling, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was constructed in 1899.
22. Constitution Village
Gates Avenue and Madison Street
This complex of of early Huntsville frame buildings on their original sites remembers the town in the days from its founding in 1805 until July 5, 1819 when forty-four delegates of the constitutional convention gathered here in a vacant cabinet shop to organize Alabama as the 22nd state. Surrounding the cabinet shop are a print shop, a law office, a land surveyor’s office and sheriff Stephen Neal’s residence.
23. Children’s History Museum
404 Madison Street at Gates Avenue
This modern museum, the South’s largest hands-on children’s destination, opened in 1998.
24. Humphreys-Rodgers House
109 Gates Avenue SW
David C. Humphreys constructed the three-bay core of this house in 1848. In 1866, Augustus D. Rodgers bought the house and enlarged it, retaining its symmetry. The house, boasting a grand staircase and 11-foot ceilings, was donated to the Alabama Constitution Village Foundation by Coca-Cola, Inc. and moved to its present location. Each year the house is lavishly decorated for a Victorian Christmas.
TURN RIGHT ON FOUNTAIN CIRCLE.
25. Huntsville City Hall
308 Fountain Circle
For much of its life City Hall resided on the corner of Clinton Avenue and Washington Street, first in an 1872 building and then an 1892 stone-and-brick Victorian structure. The city government moved into these more modern digs in the 1960s.
WALK PAST CITY HALL BACK INTO CONSTITUTION HALL PARK AND RE-CROSS CHURCH STREET INTO BIG SPRING PARK TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.