In comparison to the other three blocks on the courthouse square, most of which have been stripped of their historic architectural elements over the years, South Side Square still appears today very much as it did back in 1912.
Serving as the prime commercial property in Huntsville since the second decade of the 19th century, (and actually called “Commercial Row” up until about the 20th century) the block was originally built up with small commercial “houses” prior to the Civil War. And while those “houses” no longer exist and the outward appearance of the block has obviously changed through the years, the block is historically unique in the fact that the size and number of the buildings has remained constant over time. This is due by and large to the fact that the party walls and foundations were usually retained during any rebuilding or remodeling that took place over the years.
Interestingly building numbers 108 and 110 South Side Square are the oldest of the buildings on the block, dating from 1835-1840, and although much altered, they still retain the tall narrow proportions typical of antebellum commercial architecture in Huntsville during that time.
In fact 108 was originally built as an outlet store by the Bell Factory Textile Mill (one of the earliest textile mills established in the State of Alabama, it stood ten miles northeast of Huntsville on the Flint River) for the products of their textile mill which was chartered in 1832, so this building is historically significant to Huntsville’s past as well as architecturally significant.
110 was originally built as a three-bay building (you can just make out the entire original three-bay structure in the first photo on this page). Today only the westernmost bay survives. Each bay featured a three story, recessed and arched panel with a Venetian style window centered on each floor. Today the old cornice has been removed, the windows changed and the ground floor remodeled, but the proportions and full facade survive making it the only commercial building designed and built by George Steele still standing.
Of course the jewel of this historic block is Harrison Brothers Hardware.
Huntsville’s oldest retail business and the oldest operating hardware store in Alabama, Harrison Brothers was originally founded as a tobacco shop on Jefferson Street by bothers James and Daniel Harrison in 1879. Then in 1897, Daniel went into partnership with his youngest brother Robert S. Harrison and opened the current store, which still operates on the square to this day.
During the fifties, Robert’s sons, Daniel F. and John Harrison, took over operation of the store at which time the stock consisted primarily of hardware, furniture, and crockery. Ignoring modern merchandising techniques, the brothers preserved the store in its original turn-of-the-century condition.
In 1983, when John Harrison passed away, it seemed almost certain that a dismantling of the store would follow. This prompted the nonprofit Historic Huntsville Foundation to undertake the ultimate preservation challenge – to keep Harrison Brothers intact.
Since then the organization has done just that. The store retains its original appearance, and all counters, display shelves, wood floors (including inlayed brass numerals in 1-yard increments originally used for measuring lengths of rope, chain, and other items) and even light fixtures have been preserved.
Each sale is still rung up on a 1907 National Cash Register first used by Robert and Daniel. Featuring a marble plate, clerks were able to drop a coin onto the register’s plate and if the coin rang clear and true, it was silver and therefore good, if it thudded dully, it was a lead slug and therefore counterfeit. Unused drawers in the register are still chock-a-block with items that were left there such as broken glasses, stray keys, chestnuts and even a lace from John’s shoe.
In the back of the store the brother’s business desk, safe and coal stove are still intact, just about the way they left them. The store even has original advertising posters on display in addition to old receipts, ledgers, vintage photographs and Harrison family mementos displayed throughout the store.
And if you’re still not convinced the organization is dedicated to preserving things just the way they were left, if you look carefully you can find whiskey bottles still stashed here and there, some empty and some not.
Today the store still sells nails by the pound, in addition to some hardware, but mainly it operates as a gift shop, specializing in products and goods that are handcrafted and produced by local craftsmen, authors and artisans.
Even better? The profits from the store go to support the foundation’s preservation efforts as well as funding community activities here in Huntsville such the immensely popular Movies in the Park.
*All historic images shown in this story are courtesy of the Huntsville Public Library Archives