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: South Side Square & Harrison Brothers Hardware Store

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.

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South Side Square circa 1867

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.

South Side Square circa 1955

South Side Square circa 1955

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.

South Side Square circa 1965

South Side Square circa 1965

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.

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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.

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*All historic images shown in this story are courtesy of the Huntsville Public Library Archives

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KADIE PANGBURN
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CRUNKLETON Commercial Real EState Group
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Historic Huntsville: The Story Behind The W.T. Hutchens Building

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Built, burned down and built again has been an ongoing theme over the years for the buildings on Jefferson St in downtown Huntsville.

In fact, the stretch of Jefferson St located between Clinton Ave and Spring St was once home to one of the most luxurious hotels in all of Huntsville, The Huntsville Hotel, City Hall, and the Old McGee Hotel, among a myriad of other businesses that have come and gone over the years.

But it wasn’t until 1916 that the corner of Jefferson and Clinton was developed by W.T. Hutchens into the structure that still stands there to this day.

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William Thomas Hutchens (1859-1940)

Possibly better known as the President of Huntsville, William Thomas Hutchens was a central figure in Huntsville in the late 1800s. Founder of the Hutchens Company, one of the oldest still extant business in Huntsville, he not only served as president of Huntsville from 1893-1897 and then later Mayor from 1920-1922, but also as the city’s Postmaster from 1898-1914.

The building, which was to house the Hutchens Hardware store, was constructed in two phases by an unknown architect. The first phase included the development of the corner lot for the hardware store, and then a middle store which originally housed a movie theatre. Then in 1921 an addition was added to the structure creating a third bay.

Built in the early commercial brick style, the building departed from highly ornamented, vertically-oriented Victorian styles, and instead emphasized horizontal orientation by using strong horizontal courses and shorter, wider windows. And whereas the majority of similar structures relied on flush masonry or brick courses, the W.T. Hutchens building incorporated projecting, patterned terracotta cornices, which imparted a distinctive presence that was unusual for buildings its class.

By the late 1930s the theatre had gone out of business and the Hutchens company expanded its business into both storefronts, retaining the hardware shop in the corner building and opening a gift shop/housewares store in the middle portion. Finally the the Alabama Cafe took up residence in the first floor of the building’s addition, where it remained for many many years (the facade of which never matched the adjoining stores).

With retail on the first floor, the second floor of the structure was dedicated to office space, except for the section above 104 Jefferson and The Alabama Cafe, which was built as an apartment for the Hutchens family. Originally to gain access to these office suites, the corner bays were divided into two storefronts, separated by a sidewalk door that would lead up to the second floor suites.

W.T. Hutchens Building circa 1983

W.T. Hutchens Building circa 1983 showing the original sidewalk door between the corner suites

As the years have passed, and the first floor retail has come and gone, the building is now once again under redevelopment and we can’t wait to see what is next for the story of this beautiful building!

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KADIE PANGBURN
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KADIE@CRUNKLETONASSOCIATES.COM

 

Historic Huntsville: The Story Behind The I. Schiffman Building

While so many of the historic buildings in Downtown Huntsville have been extensively renovated, rebuilt, remodeled, modernized, or simply demolished, the iconic I. Schiffman Building has remained unchanged and unaltered for almost 121 years.

The Original Building & Renovation

The Schiffman Building circa 1898 - Courtesy Of The Huntsville Madison County Library

The Schiffman Building circa 1898 – Courtesy Of The Huntsville Madison County Library

Located at 231 East Side Square, what we now know as the I. Schiffman Building, was once part of a larger Federal style antebellum brick building that dates back to before the civil war.

Built circa the year 1845, by an unknown architect/builder, the original structure was three stories high and divided into three bays by massive flat pilasters with capitals and topped by a plain entablature.

Then in 1895, the south third of the building underwent extensive renovations by the Southern Savings and Loan Association, which transformed the façade in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. A limestone façade was added and the archways were cut. The building’s interior layout was also reconfigured to feature a side hall and offices on all three floors and finished with pressed tin ceilings, carved cherry wood, oak , mission style chandeliers that utilized carbide for lighting, corner fireplaces, carved mantels and two walk-in vaults. All totaled the renovations cost over $18,000, which is around $516,953.06 today.

The Bankheads

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William B. Bankhead with Eugenia and Tallulah

A short time after the building’s renovation, Huntsville city attorney William B. Bankhead rented an office in the building and lived upstairs in a second floor apartment with his wife Ada Eugenia Bankhead. There in their home above the courthouse square, in the front room on the second floor, they bore two children, Eugenia in 1901 and Tallulah a year later on January 31, 1902.

In the years that followed, William B. Bankhead would go on to become the future U.S. Speaker of the House, and his daughter Tallulah would find international acclaim as an actress.

Renown for her dramatic roles in theatre, film, radio and television, Tallulah began her career in silent film and then went to England where she became the toast of the London Theatre in the late 1920s. In 1930 she returned to America to make six movies for Paramount, beginning a long career as a leading actress in American theatre. Known for her sultry voice, pension for cigarettes and calling everyone, “Darling,” her quick wit and brazen lifestyle only added to her fame. Of all her work, she is probably most remembered for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lifeboat.”

A still from her famous role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" in 1944

A still from her famous role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” in 1944

The Schiffmans

Isaac Schiffman - Courtesy of the Huntsville Madison County Library

Isaac Schiffman – Courtesy of the Huntsville Madison County Library

Born in 1856, Isaac Schiffman was 19 years old when he immigrated to the United States from Hoppstädten, Germany to come work for his uncle Solomon’s mercantile business in Huntsville Alabama.

Solomon Schiffman and his brother Daniel Schiffman had come to Huntsville prior to the civil war and opened a dry goods and clothing business on the courthouse square and following Solomon’s death in 1898, control of the business was handed over to Isaac who changed the name of the company from S. Schiffman & Company to I. Schiffman & Company.

Image courtesy of the Huntsville Madison County Library

Image courtesy of the Huntsville Madison County Library

After dabbling in a variety of business ventures, including a thriving buggy, scurries and carriage business, around the turn of the 20th century I. Schiffman & Company became involved in the investment and cotton business. And in 1905 Isaac purchased the Southern Savings and Loan building on the east side of the square to house the company for $9,000, or roughly $239,436.54 in today’s economy.

After his passing in 1910, ownership of the building and the family business passed to Isaac’s son Robert Schiffman, then to Robert’s brother-in-law Lawrence B. Goldsmith Sr. and to his son Lawrence B. Goldsmith Jr. and then finally in 1995 to Lawrence’s daughter, Margaret Anne Goldsmith who to this day runs her family’s company out of the same building that has been its home since 1905.

In an article Margaret Anne Goldsmith wrote for the Huntsville History Collection, she said this about the building:

“Today, as the owner of the I. Schiffman Building, I have my ancestors to thank for the honor and privilege of being the steward of the I. Schiffman Building that I inherited. From 1905 until 1995 my great grandfather, my great uncle, my grandfather and my father cared for the building and kept it in good repair, making sure there were no changes that would alter its architectural integrity. They guarded it from the ravishes of senseless modernization and destruction that took so many of Huntsville’s nineteenth century buildings, and kept it intact for the benefit of Huntsville, its citizens and future generations. A second renovation carefully modernizing the building according to strict historic tax credit standards occurred in 1997. Now with good maintenance in the years to come, the life of the building will be extended for another hundred and fifty years.” – Margert Anne Goldsmith

Click on the images below to learn more details and meet the Schiffman/Goldsmith family:

The Schiffman Building Today

The Schiffman Building Today

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KADIE PANGBURN
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CRUNKLETON & ASSOCIATES
KADIE@CRUNKLETONASSOCIATES.COM