Historic Huntsville: The Russel Erskine Hotel

In many ways, the story of the Hotel Russel Erskine in downtown Huntsville is the story of Huntsville itself.

For over 45 years, this historic building located on the corner of Clinton and Spragins was the central hub for all civic and social gatherings. Prominent figures in Huntsville’s history called it their home, club meetings were held there, weddings were attended and major business was conducted within its walls. And in many ways, its prominence and renown within the region was a major contributing factor for Huntsville being chosen to host Redstone Arsenal. Something that has come to define the very essence of our city and economy.

But perhaps more surprising, is that the building itself was not a product of a large corporate investment or single enterprising individual looking to turn a profit, but instead the work of several local Huntsville businessmen coming together to enrich their community.

THE BEGINNING

img_00457In the late 1920s, there were two passenger trains each day to and from Huntsville and Washington and New York. The travelers from these trains, most of whom had business in Huntsville (then reknown for its mills, banks, retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and its nurseries – which were among the largest in the world), were used to life on the road and they knew what they liked in hotels.

So with everyone still basking in the the rosy financial glow of the 1920s, seven local Huntsvillians decided to undertake the creation a hotel that would impress this growing number of business travellers, or any other discriminating guest who sought well-kept, up-to-date rooms, good service and excellent food.

In the end, after coming together to form the “Huntsville Hotel Company” the major burden of assuring that all financial obligations would be met for the project fell on the shoulders of: Lawrence B. Goldsmith and Robert Schiffman (brothers in law, partners in I. Schiffman Co. dealing with commercial property, farm property warehousing, etc.), Morton M. Hutchens (Partner in the Hutchens Company, plumbing, heating and electrical supplies, hardware, wholesale and retail), Robert E Smith (attorney at law), T.T. Terry (dry goods merchant on the square), Wells M. Stanley (a vice president of the Alabama Power Company) & J. Emory Pierce (editor and general manager of the Huntsville Daily Times).

Investing a grand total $614,932.92 into the project, (which equates to nearly $8.9 million in today’s economy – a large sum of money to invest in a town of only about 11,500 people) the Huntsville Hotel Group along with Huntsville’s business and civic leadership saw itself as the commercial capital of North Alabama and viewed this hotel as a way to announce that to the country.

And so, on January 3rd 1930, three years after forming the Huntsville Hotel Company and after a lengthy and somewhat tumultuous financing and construction process (and just a few short months after the stock market crashed in October of 1929), the Hotel Russell Erskine opened its doors and celebrated with a grand party, which was has been boasted as one of the bigger-than-life occasions in Huntsville’s history.

THE HOTEL

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Front lobby of Russel Erskine Hotel. (Huntsville Public Library).

The hotel stood 12 stories, boasted 132 rooms and was equipped with a number of modern luxuries for the time including running ice water, electric fans, and a radio in every room. This last involved a rather expensive rooftop radio antenna that brought broadcasts to each and every room by means of radio cables.

Once inside the hotel, visitors could either turn left into the barber shop, go right into the Blue Room (perhaps to a luncheon) or walk straight ahead toward the lobby which featured marble floors, elegant chandeliers red damask curtains, thick rugs, a brass and marble reception desk, and Miss Josephine’s newsstand which was filled with magazines, candy, tobacco goods and comic books. From there you could climb the stairs on the left to go into the beauty shop or the office of the Automobile Association of America, which later became the home of the Rocket Club. One could also continue on to the hotel’s coffee shop, then Huntsville’s most elegant restaurant, or walk through the lobby to the ballroom which hosted club meetings, parties, proms and wedding receptions along with other events.

The tallest hotel with the most rooms in all of the Tennessee Valley, the Hotel Russel Erskine was the place to stay when one had business in North Alabama.

BEHIND THE NAME

Albert Russel Erskine

Albert Russel Erskine

Named after Huntsville native Albert Russel Erskine who went on to become an automobile magnate and president of Studebaker Motors, there is quite the plethora of colorful stories about how the hotel came to settle on that name. According to some, the original name for the hotel was meant to have been the Joe Wheeler, after the famous Confederate general. However after financing fell through and building capital fell short the founders decided to name it the Russel Erskine in the hopes that as a member of one of the oldest Huntsville families he could be expected to enter into the civic spirit of the enterprise to the extent of investing substantial funds into it.

However, after noting he was down for 100 shares of stock and the pledge of a $10,000 investment during a meeting on April 1928, it is said that he was unfortunately not good for his word and reportedly only invested a token $500 into the project in addition to loaning the Huntsville Hotel Company an oil portrait of himself. (Under the condition that he reserved the right to withdraw the portrait from the hotel at some future time).

Other sources state that the name change from Joe Wheeler to Russell Erskine was a direct condition from Russell Erskine himself in response to the request for financial support from the hotel financiers but that when he arrived for the grand opening (which other sources say he did not even attend) he was wined and dined, but left without opening his wallet.

Sadly, just a few short years after the grand opening of the hotel in 1930 Erskine committed suicide in 1933 after becoming distraught over the Studebaker company entering bankruptcy during the great depression. He is buried at the top of the hill in Maple Hill cemetery.

A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

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After the stock market crash in October of the previous year, there were ominous signs that the nation’s economy was in serious trouble at the time of the Hotel’s opening in 1930. However, with the guidance of the stockholders, the directors and the sure hand of Lawrence Goldsmith Sr, the hotel remained open and solvent so that when the economy recovered the hotel was able to fulfill its promise of becoming the social and civic center of Huntsville.

On Sunday afternoons, churchgoers from the town’s six or seven downtown churches would flock to the Hotel Russel Erskine wearing hats, gloves, suits and ties to lunch at the coffee house. Greeted by the head waiter, Cristo in his dark pants and white coat, the townspeople would dine on menu items such as homemade rolls, chicken croquettes, red snapper, prime rib, steak and for dessert ice cream or apple pie.

It was the gathering place for most club meetings, civic and social, for weddings, proms, business meetings, and birthday parties. And in the words of the former manager Jimmie Taylor “provided a facility for everything but funerals.”

The Hotel also contributed greatly to Huntsville’s growth, serving as caterer for most of Huntsville’s major events it became a major player in luring the generals who would choose Huntsville as the site for Redstone Arsenal during the approach of World War II, which in turn would become the site of the space and rocket industry that brought prosperity and growth to a city that may have otherwise remained a farming and mill town.

CHANGING TIMES

After the war, Huntsville was a quickly growing and changing city and soon it found itself outgrowing the hotel in favor of more modern facilities that were being built to accommodate the needs of the growing community.

Motels were being built to serve travelers not arriving by train anymore, but by cars and planes. Retail business began migrating from the downtown area which had been its home since the founding of the city in the 1800s to the newly constructed parkway.

Slowly but surely it became apparent that like other, older, downtown hotels all over the country the Hotel Russel Erskine was doomed.

And so it was in the winter of 1975 that the hotel said goodbye to its last guest and closed its doors.

THE RUSSEL ERSKINE TODAY

dsc_9933_smallAfter being rented for some years after the hotel’s closing, several investors purchased it, intending to alter the building into a suite hotel. This plan was soon abandoned though and eventually the building was purchased by a group who converted the hotel into HUD apartments for the elderly. It has been remodeled from its original 132 rooms to contain 69 apartments: 57 one-bedroom units; 10 two-bedroom units, and two rooms for handicapped residents. However the main lobby and ballroom, while somewhat remodeled over the years, have remained relatively intact, the ballroom itself has undergone an extensive restoration recently.

Today, the Hotel Russel Erskine is the last tall building from the 1920s and the only one of these in the Neo-Classical Revival style still standing in Huntsville.

I want to take moment to say a special thanks to the Huntsville History Collection for publishing a wonderful collection of essays on the history of the Russel Erskine Hotel in Volume 30, Number 3-4, Fall/Winter 2004 issue of the Historic Huntsville Quarterly where much of the information for this post was gleaned.  If you are interested in learning more about the history of the Russel Erskine, I highly recommend reading the full set of essays for yourself!

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KADIE PANGBURN
MARKETING COORDINATOR
CRUNKLETON Commercial Real EState Group
KADIE@CRUNKLETONASSOCIATES.COM

Historic Huntsville: The Story Behind 107 Washington Street

The Huntsville Kress Building Today

Researching and sharing the history of buildings in our beautiful Downtown area on this blog has become one of my favorite things to do. I love digging into history and getting to tell forgotten stories that help to reconnect our past with our present.

So for my next research topic I just couldn’t help but choose the old Kress building downtown. I have always loved every minute detail of that building. However during my research I discovered an overwhelming lack of information on the building and it’s history.  So I have compiled what I could discover here, but if anyone has any additional information on the building (especially access to images from the early 1930s when it was first built) I would love to hear about it!  Now, on with the history:

SAMUEL H. KRESS

tumblr_inline_nmg5ztqtOD1tnae7i_500Born in 1863 Samuel H. Kress was the second oldest of seven children descending from German and Irish immigrants.

As a child he worked in the stone quarries until the age of 17 when he earned his teaching credentials which enabled him to begin work as a school teacher.

By 1887 Kress had saved up enough money to open his first store in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania selling stationery and notions. And as the business prospered, he used his profits to open additional stores, naming his chain “S.H. Kress & Co.”

Unlike most businessmen of his day, who chose to open stores in large developed urban areas, Kress made the unique decision to locate the bulk of his stores in smaller cities across the US that he felt had potential to grow. The stores he built in turn became the jewels of many of these small cities, most of which had only a dry goods or general store as their main retailer until that point.

However, these buildings would never have become the iconic city jewels they are without the work of one very important man: Edward F. Sibbert.

EDWARD F. SIBBERT

edward-sibbertBorn in 1889, Sibbert was a brooklyn-born american architect. And at the age of 35, after starting his career in Miami during the great Florida land boom of the 1920s, Sibbert returned to his hometown of Brooklyn where he answered an advertisement in a local newspaper.

Kress, who was in the process of dismissing his head architect at the time, George Mackay, hired Sibbert as chief architect for S.H. Kress & Co. And over the next 25 years the two would design a chain of stores spanning the United States, iconic for their consistent format and style, and instantly recognizable by their use of ornamental terra cotta.

S.H. KRESS & COMPANY

kress.anniston.alOne of the 20th century’s most prosperous variety-store retailers, with just over 200 locations nationwide S.H. Kress & Co may never have been the largest retail chain, however it did manage to hold the record for highest per-store sales of any five-and-dime in the country for more than 20 years.

kress.birminhamThe reasons for this were simple, for Samuel H. Kress, his stores were always more that just another five-and-dime. Instead, he envisioned his stores as works of public art that would contribute to the cityscape. And the creation of an architectural division within his company played a key role in both attracting customers and facilitating sales.

Kress received retail branding success not merely through standardized signage and graphics, but through distinctive architecture and efficient design. Regardless of their style, from elaborate Gothic Revival to streamlined Art Deco, Kress stores were designed to be internal parts of their urban districts and helped define Main Street America.

S.H. KRESS & COMPANY COMES TO HUNTSVILLE

Huntsville was little more than a village for many years until the erection of Dallas Mill finally gave the Huntsville economy a solid base and spurred construction activity.  By the year 1900 commercial development was well underway, but it was not until the 1920s that retail development really saw it’s boom. It was during this decade that national chain stores such as Penny’s, Sears, Wards and S.H. Kress & Co. began to open branches here in Huntsville.

Designed by S.H. Kress & Company’s head architect Edward Sibbert in the late 1920s and finished in 1931, the Downtown Huntsville Kress building is one of the finest examples of art deco architecture in Huntsville and since its construction has become an integral part of the fabric of the Downtown Huntsville area.

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Washington Street during the 1950s. The Kress building is just visible on the other side of the old Lyric building.

As a final note, if you are interested in leasing space in this historic building, our company actually has some space listed on the second floor! You can find all the information for that listing HERE.

And again, if anyone has anymore details about the history of the Huntsville building specifically, feel free to drop me a note, I would love to hear them!

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KADIE PANGBURN
MARKETING COORDINATOR
CRUNKLETON & ASSOCIATES
KADIE@CRUNKLETONASSOCIATES.COM

Huntsville History: 100 years of Downtown’s YMCA building

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A postcard showing the original 1912 interior of the YMCA building

Huntsville has had an interesting journey through time as many of its old historic buildings were leveled to make way for “the city that space built” during the 60s and Wernher von Braun’s golden age of space exploration.

(Cue sad violin music over the loss of our original court house here.)

However, for those who are curious enough to venture off the beaten path and beyond the main streets of downtown Huntsville, visitors will be rewarded with some of the most beautifully preserved historic buildings in the city. Including the old YMCA building on the corner of Greene and Randolph.

Mary Virginia McCormick

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Mary Virginia McCormick

It was the year 1900 and the daughter of famed American inventor and industrialist Cyrus McCormick (creator of the mechanical reaper), Mary Virginia McCormick, had recently taken up residence in the then newly built Kildare Mansion near central Huntsville.

Mary, who suffered from mental illness most of her life, spent her winters at Kildare from the year 1900-1931 with her caretaker, Grace Walker. During the time she spent in Huntsville, the city was introduced to an air of luxury that most citizens at the time had never seen before.

When Mary would arrive for the winter, children would be let out of school just to see the procession of her belongings being taken into the mansion.

But more than anything, Mary McCormick and Grace Walker were both best known for their philanthropic efforts in the area, especially in regards to caring for children. Of their many philanthropic pursuits was the building and funding of local YMCAs.

After funding two other YMCAs for the mill communities that had grown up around the town, Mary wired her eldest brother Cyrus McCormick Jr. in the year 1909 to wire funds for the creation of a third central YMCA that was to be located on Greene street. He quickly responded by sending two wire transfers, one for $5,000 and another for $7,500.

Edgar Lee Love

YMCA_203Greene_Huntsville_01aThe man behind the design for the new YMCA building was budding local architect Edgar Lee Love, who began life as a carpenter, but after a short stint working under the architect Herbert Cowell, struck out on his own.

Renowned as the first Huntsville architectural historian, Love was obsessed with the documentation and preservation of historical buildings. He was most famous for what we now call adaptive reuse of existing buildings, a concept that most architects during the period had not even considered.

This love of traditional architecture is self evident in the elegant four-story Renaissance Revival-Style building he designed for the central YMCA.

The Building

YMCA_203Greene_Huntsville_01bFacing west toward Greene Street, the building features a T-shaped floor plan with a four-story front wing and a three-story rear wing, a hipped roof covered with green colored tiles, deep overhanging eaves with exposed rafter tails, brick veneer wall, stone foundation, and interior end brick chimneys.

Over the main entrance, flanked by two doric pilasters “Y.M.C.A.” is inscribed in the concrete arched entrance. And the cornerstone of the building holds the inscription “Jesus Christ Himself Being the Chief Cornerstone – 1910” on the north side, and the YMCA “Spirit, Mind Body” crest on the west side of the stone.

Life As The Central YMCA

YMCA_203Greene_Huntsville_08From the moment its doors opened in 1912 the “Young Men’s Christian Association” on Greene Street was a central hub for families in Huntsville. Children could swim in the indoor basement pool, one of the first of its kind in the area, play basketball on the indoor court and adults could find rooming accommodations on the fourth floor for $1 a night.

For 86 years, children laughed, played, swam, shot hoops and found a sense of community at the central YMCA.

Then in 1998, after 86 long years of use, the YMCA knew that the organization had simply outgrown its long held space. Parking has become a difficulty, and there simply wasn’t room for them to expand and grow to meet the needs of the community anymore.

Buck Watson and WJGM, LLC.

YMCA_203Greene_Huntsville_27After being scooped up from the YMCA by local realtor John Blue, Buck Watson remembers getting a phone call one day that Blue might be interested in selling. “We were looking for a new office space at the time and our realtor called and said, Buck we’ve got to go look at this building and we’ve got to look at it today. So we did and basically bought the building sight unseen.” Commented Buck Watson. Built originally for $35,000 in 1912 Watson and an investment group called WJGM, LLC. purchased the building in 1999 for $400,000 (which was a steal since adjusting for time and inflation $35,000 in 1912 works out to around $829,825 today!).
However, 86 years of children can be rough on a building and in the time since the building had been vacated by the YMCA, the upstair windows had been knocked out, pigeons had begun to roost in the building and homeless people had been sneaking in to sleep in the rooms. “When I walked in here when I bought the place, I went up to the third floor and there was a man in there asleep under a bunch of stuff so I couldn’t even see him and all of a sudden he turned over while I was standing there.”

The Renovations

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Working from an old postcard that showed the original 1912 interior of the building, Buck Watson set to work restoring the building to its original state, fighting architects at every turn to preserve as many historical details from the building as possible, like the original wooden staircase in the lobby and the old wooden gym floor.
During the renovations Watson also discovered numerous artifacts from the YMCAs long history within the building, including various trophies in a large barrel upstairs dating back as far as 1915 which adorn a glass display cabinet in his office along with other historical documents from the old YMCA. The items displayed include objects such as the old lodging ledger book for guests who stayed overnight in the fourth-floor rooms, old photographs, postcards that guests had written home while staying at the Y, and even the original wire money cables from Cyrus McCormick for the funding of the building of the YMCA in 1909.

A further discovery was made during renovations when, while removing a wall on the third floor, they found hidden pocket doors within the wall. Delighted by the discovery they restored the doors and left them in place.

In fact, at every turn in the building you can see where restoration and modernization has met heart-felt preservation, whether it be keeping elements of the old observation balcony in the gym, or preserving part of the original center court floor.

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All totaled, Buck Watson and WJGM, LLC. spent roughly $2 million during a little more than a year, lovingly and painstakingly, restoring the building back to its original 1912 design.

Today

Today the building functions as a home for more than six different firms including attorneys, court reporters and investment bankers, some of whom grew up playing basketball in the very same building as a child.

While various tenants have come and gone from the building over the last 16 years since the renovations were completed, Buck Watson is still there, ready and waiting with his trophy case of history to share the story of the building he loves so much with anyone who inquires.

Take a tour of what the building looks like today by looking through the images below.  To learn more about an image, click on it to reveal the caption.


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KADIE PANGBURN
MARKETING COORDINATOR
CRUNKLETON & ASSOCIATES
KADIE@CRUNKLETONASSOCIATES.COM