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

The 2016 Downtown Huntsville Christmas Shopping Guide

We’re back again to share our second annual Downtown Huntsville Christmas Shopping Guide with you!

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Downtown Huntsville is bursting at the seams with brand new retail shops this holiday season! So if you’re looking to get away from the mall, head to Downtown Huntsville and check out a few of these great stores! They’re sure to have something for everyone on your list!

Just like last year, we’ve put together a little look book of what you can expect to find at each store along with their hours of operation and location!

And this year, because there are simply SO MANY new stores that they all just wouldn’t fit on one blog post, we’ve given the guide it’s very own website!  You can even shop by the type of gift you are looking for!

The 2016 Downtown Huntsville Christmas Shopping Guide

(click the text above to view the 2016 Downtown Huntsville Shopping Guide)


Want a tiny peek inside the guide?  Here’s a small sampling of what you’ll find when you look around the guide. (For more photos from each store and to view their hours, location and connect with them online simply click on the store’s name).

UG White Mercantile

Roosevelt & Company

Elitaire Boutique

The Pants Store

Harrison Brothers Hardware

Want to see more!? Then check out the full listings for all these amazing Downtown stores on The 2016 Downtown Huntsville Christmas Shopping Guide by CLICKING HERE where you can check out even more amazing Downtown Huntsville shops like these:

Awe Boutique
Meraki Boutique
Woodtech
Clachic Boutique
Christina Wegman Fine Art
Echo Records
Elsweyr Shoppe
81:Home, Gift & Glam
The Whateva Shop
& Don’t Forget About Gift Cards!

Want to help spread the word and help others shop local and support our Downtown this holiday season? Then share the 2016 Downtown Huntsville Shopping Guide on your social media!

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

Portrait Of A City: Huntsville AL

During my time here at Crunkleton I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in a lot of exciting projects, but the one that has meant the most to me by far, has been having the opportunity to document the spirit of Huntsville itself.

Old and new, the past and present walking hand in hand as the city grows, changes and evolves, it fills me with so much joy to discover hidden details, record fleeting moments and capture the spirit of our beautiful and unique city.

Below are just a small selection of the images I’ve taken over the last year, telling the story of our city one photograph at a time.

If you want to see more images like this and keep up with my ongoing project, be sure to follow our company Instagram account where I post new images of Huntsville every week!  Simply CLICK HERE to follow us!

If you too want to add to our ongoing project, simply use the hashtag #ThisIsMyHsv on your Instagram post to share what you love about our beautiful city!

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

Take a Hike, Huntsville: Trails To Explore In Your Own Backyard

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© Tom Woodward

Punxsutawney Phil has spoken and spring is on it’s way!

With all that beautiful spring weather just around the corner, we can’t wait to get outside and enjoy all of the amazing hiking, biking and walking paths Huntsville has to offer!

And we’re not the only ones, even national retailer and outdoor guru REI is excited about enjoying Huntsville’s plethora of trails this spring! In an article titled “5 DESTINATIONS TO GET YOU PSYCHED FOR SPRING HIKING” REI blogger Derek Hamilton lists Huntsville, Alabama among Boulder, Colorado; The Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona; Point Reyes National Seashore, Califorina; and The Great Smokey Mountain National Park in North Carolina as their top five destinations to get out and go hiking this spring!

So if you’re looking to take their recommendation and explore a little more of your own backyard this spring, we’ve taken a moment to step away from our usual commercial real estate blogging and put together a list of some of the best hiking trips in and around the Huntsville Area! Hopefully one of these will inspire you to spend a little time discovering all the amazing outdoor opportunities Huntsville has to offer!

Natural Wells Trail

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©wrcochran

Length Of Hike: Approx 3.5 Miles if you start at the picnic area, descend the McKay Hollow Trail, then take the Natural Well Trail to the well itself.  Then turn around and return back up the Natural well trail, veer left onto the Arrowhead trail for a time, then follow the McKay Hollow Trail back to where you started.
Difficulty: Moderate – Extremely Difficult
Highlights: A deep cavernous natural well over 200 ft deep.
Location: Click Here
Maps & Information: Click Here

A natural pit cave, Natural well has an initial drop of around 200 feet!  A safety fence is in place around the cave, but be sure to stay at a safe distance.  This trail takes in some of the best routes on Monte Sano, featuring some amazing natural rock formations but hikers should be aware that the trail descends about 800 feet and then ascends another 600 feet with lots of ups and downs each way, so be sure to wear a sturdy pair of boots when tackling this trail!

Three Caves

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© Larry Wilbourn

Length Of Hike: .26 Mile Loop (or a 4.46 Mile hike if you start Downtown)
Difficulty: Easy
Highlights: Three large “Caves”.
Location: Click Here
Maps & Information: Click Here

A former limestone quarry, and not really caves at all, the trailhead for the Three Caves loop is only a short 2.1 mile walk from Big Spring Park in Downtown Huntsville.  Once at the “Caves” visitors can enjoy a walk around the top, take a sneak peek inside the “caves” from the opening (the interior of the old quarry has been closed since 2007) or have the opportunities to extend their hike by exploring the other connecting trails in the area.

Be sure to stay up to date with all the amazing summer concerts that are held here as well by CLICKING HERE!

Stone Cuts Trail

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© Rob Getman

Length Of Hike: Approx 4.4 miles if you start at the main Monte Sano trailhead, follow the North Plateau Loop, Then the Sinks Trail to the Stone Cuts Trail, and taking the Sinks Trail and North Plateau Loop back again.
Difficulty: Difficult
Highlights: Passage ways through natural rock cuts and formations
Location: Click Here
Maps & Information: Click Here

This trail is just fun.  Filled with some difficult terrain, beautiful rock formations, and scenic views, you’ll want a sturdy pair of hiking boots to tackle this challenging trail!

Fire Tower Trail

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©Nina Helmer

If you want to locate the tea house on your hike for a picnic, you're looking for this symbol on the linked map.

If you want to locate the tea house on your hike, you’re looking for this symbol on the linked map.

Length Of Hike: Approx 2.8 Miles Round Trip (and only about .25 miles or less if you go straight the picnic spot)
Difficulty: Easy
Highlights: The best picnic spot in Huntsville
Location: Click Here
Maps & Information: Click Here

As you can see from just the few we have mentioned in this post, Monte Sano State Park has dozens of beautiful trails ranging from the extreme to the easy to explore.  One trail we particularly enjoy on day’s when we’re looking to have an easy hike, and a nice relaxing picnic, is the Fire Tower Trail.  With it’s hidden Japanese tea house making the perfect spot to stop and spend a lazy day enjoying nature.

Green Mountain Nature Trail

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Length Of Hike: 1.5 Mile Loop
Difficulty: Easy
Highlights: Rustic covered bridge, picnicking spots and walking trails on a lake.
Location: Click Here
Maps & Information: Click Here

With a 17 acre lake acting as a wild duck refuge,  72 acres of plant and wildlife sanctuary for nature study, and fishing (for children & seniors), in addition to hiking trails and picnic spots,  The Madison County Nature Trail provides a great family friendly day outdoors.

Stephen’s Gap

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© Monongahela Grotto

Length Of Hike: 2.4 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate – Difficult
Highlights: Majestic waterfall from a sinkhole in a cave.
Location: Click Here
Maps & Information: Click Here

Only 30 minutes away from the center of Huntsville, Stephens Gap offers a short hike with a big pay off.  No special gear is need to enter the cave, however hikers should be aware that the rocks inside the cave may be slippery, be sure to wear good hiking shoes and take care where you step, then take a moment to enjoy the view.  Hikers must obtain a permit to visit  the site! Click Here to find information on everything you need to know in order to gain a permit.

The Walls of Jericho

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© Jeffrey Carroll

Length Of Hike: Approx 7.7 Miles
Difficulty: Difficult
Highlights: Waterfalls and swimming holes.
Location: Click Here
Maps & Information: Click Here & Here

Located about an hour outside of Huntsville near Estillfork, AL, The Walls of Jericho is a 750-acre natural area that is within the 8,943-acre Bear Hollow Mountain Wildlife Management Area.  The “Walls” are an impressive geological feature that forms a large bowl shaped amphitheater and embedded in the limestone.  Filled with beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes this is a tough hike with lots of rewards!

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Make sure you’re staying on top of the latest trends, newest developments and hottest new stores in Huntsville by subscribing to our weekly blog updates!

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