Historic Huntsville: The Huntsville Hotel

Recently, we announced that downtown Huntsville would soon have its first luxury boutique hotel. The Curio by Hilton Hotel – 106 Jefferson is an exciting addition to the area that will usher in a new wave of high-end accommodations and meeting space. While many know the spot on Jefferson Street as the former Hale Brothers Furniture building, its history stretches back much further.

In fact, in 1858, the block was home to the famed Huntsville Hotel—an elegant inn that was described as “the town’s first real hostelry.”

In the same spot, 160 years apart, 106 Jefferson will be reinvented as a modern boutique hotel.

Image courtesy: The Historic Huntsville Quarterly; Huntsville Public Library Heritage Room

The Bell Tavern Becomes The Huntsville Hotel

In the early 1800s, locals and traveling salesmen would visit the northwest corner of the city square to enjoy a stay at the Bell Tavern. Although the site had endured many changes in ownership, it somehow managed to thrive for several years before falling into the hands of Alexander Johnson in 1855.

According to The Historic Huntsville Quarterly, disaster struck when Johnson “leased the stables of the Tavern to a Mr. Thomason while retaining ownership of the equipment—the buggies, harnesses, etc.—as well as retaining ownership of the tavern house, including numerous lodging rooms and ‘The Owl’ dining and bar facilities.”

It wasn’t long until the Bell Tavern was the victim of a major fire, which Johnson claimed was the work of an arsonist.

After the fire, the Tavern maintained a few rooms for guests but it never returned to its former glory. That’s when plans were made to build a new kind of modern hotel on the same site, one grander than ever before.

The Huntsville Hotel—Known For Comfort And Extravagance

If you walked down Jefferson Street in the 1890s, the massive doors of the Huntsville Hotel would greet you as you watched the town’s elite being escorted from their horses and carts. The doorman may have given you a nod as you looked up to examine the hotel’s four stories, complete with ironwork trimming. Everything in view would exude the elegance of the time.

As you strolled inside, you would see the main parlor with comfortable leather armchairs, an ornate fireplace, and curtains that reached from the ceiling to the floor. Newspapers of the day described the design as “tasty and elegant”—a perfect echo of the Victorian era.

Image courtesy: The Historic Huntsville Quarterly; Huntsville Public Library Heritage Room

The hotel was successful for many years, including during the Civil War and through a nasty bout of Yellow Fever that affected much of Alabama near the end of the nineteenth century.

Even during wartime, the Huntsville Hotel was able to keep up the spirits of visitors and locals by continuing to host lavish parties and grand balls. Grand Concert Troupes performed at the Huntsville Hotel charging only 50 cents per ticket.

In 1883, a production of Pirates of Penzance played in the stunning dining hall of the inn. It seemed nothing could get the old hotel down.

Image courtesy: The Historic Huntsville Quarterly; Huntsville Public Library Heritage Room

During the Yellow Fever scare, the hotel was reportedly full of citizens from nearby cities seeking refuge during the summer months when the illness was at its peak. Many guests from Memphis hid away in the cozy rooms at the hotel and waited for the outbreak to end.

As its success continued to grow, an additional 65 rooms were added and the property underwent a major renovation/expansion in 1888.

1888 Fire Insurance Map – This shows the renovation of the hotel. Notice the property extending down the block to meet City Hall on the corner of Jefferson and Clinton.

The Huntsville Hotel was beloved for decades until two separate fires claimed the site, leaving only ashes behind.

1908 Fire Insurance Map – This shows the Huntsville Hotel when it was fully operational. The old City Hall is now the Huntsville Opera House.

History Repeats Itself

After what many Huntsville papers reported as “the most devastating fire in the city’s history,” the Huntsville Hotel suffered the same fate as its predecessor, The Bell Tavern. Curious onlookers stood outside the building aghast at what they saw. As the smoke plumes filled the air above them, it became clear to the crowd that this event marked the end of the Huntsville Hotel.

While there were two different fires—one in 1910 and another in 1911—the landscape on Jefferson and Spring Street changed dramatically after the fire on November 12, 1911, as the entire block was destroyed. The total losses from damages were estimated at $250,000, which is equivalent to around $6.3 million today.

Image of the hotel burning down in 1910 (the first fire); The Huntsville Times

Staff Writer at the Huntsville Times, Weldon Payne, wrote a recount of the day that ran in the daily newspaper 47 years after the second fire. In it he states:

“There was a fire on Jefferson Street. Many crowded close to it. Heat from the leaping flames must have felt good reaching through the cold November air to touch their faces. It had done so on the same location almost exactly a year before.”

J.E. Penney, the hotel’s owner at the time, had made plans to rebuild from the ashes following the fire of 1910. But after the second fire nearly a year later, he decided to abandon any hope of bringing back the once vibrant inn.

It took years for the city to rebuild the block. And old fire insurance maps show the street between Clinton Avenue and Spring Street are barren in 1913. It wasn’t until 1915 that someone found interest in the land and made plans to rebuild the block.

1913 Fire Insurance Map – Notice the block has been almost completely destroyed by the fires.

By 1928, progress had been made. The Jefferson Street block was now home to the Alabama Power Company and the new Jefferson Theatre. Things were slowly returning to normal—minus the charm and convenience of one of Huntsville’s most popular hotels.

1928 Fire Insurance Map – The block is slowly being rebuilt.

It wouldn’t be long until other famed hotels took center stage and accommodated the many traveling salesmen who planned long stopovers in town. Due to its acclaimed hospitality and beautiful scenery, Huntsville was a popular spot to relax between business meetings.

By April 1914, the Hotel Twickenham had a grand opening—complete with parade—the next block over on Clinton Avenue. The Russel Erskine and Hotel Yarbrough also opened to guests soon after. Downtown enjoyed many glory days as the city’s mecca for lavish accommodations and luxury travel.

But as the glitz and glamour of downtown faded in the following years, the city moved much of its efforts toward expanding other neighborhoods. The days of hotels dominating downtown came to a gradual end.

Hale Brothers Furniture

Today, many people regard 106 Jefferson as the old Hale Brothers Furniture store. For decades, everyone in Huntsville knew about the furniture shop on Jefferson Street. But prior to opening its storefront on Jefferson, Hale Brothers could be found on Clinton Avenue. It wasn’t until 1956 that it moved into its iconic spot where the new Curio by Hilton Hotel is being built today.

In an interview with the Huntsville Times, Clyde “Sonny” Hale shared that he “loved these buildings” [on Jefferson Street] and wanted to own them someday. “That was one of my goals in life,” he said.  “Something told me to buy them.” And so he did. (Article by: Marian Accardi, Times Business Writer, 12/16/01)

Hale Brothers Furniture remained in operation until 2002 when it liquidated its stock and officially closed its doors. After 55 years of business, the team still reflected on the joys of doing business in downtown Huntsville. For the Hale team, the closing was both a “fun” and “traumatic experience,” simply because their customers had become such an integral part of their lives.

Looking Toward The Future

That brings us to today. 106 Jefferson Street, whether publically recognized or not, is a symbol of the city’s resilience. Its history has come full circle, as it will once again welcome guests to enjoy a stay in our city and invite locals to mingle at its restaurant or rooftop bar.

We can’t wait for construction to begin so you can have a small glimpse into the past when the block transforms to house the city’s newest boutique hotel.

For more information on the Curio by Hilton Hotel – 106 Jefferson, be sure to check out our official announcement of the project here.

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CRUNKLETON COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE GROUP
HALEY@CRUNKLETONASSOCIATES.COM

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Historic Huntsville: The Hotel Twickenham

On an April afternoon in 1914, the City of Huntsville was at a standstill. The Daily Times headline read, “Fitting Exercises In Celebration ‘Breaking Dirt’ For New Hotel.” The article following relayed the names of several businesses that would close from 1:30-3 pm that day, and children praised the ceremony for helping end the school day at noon.

Crowds advanced to the city center and patiently waited for the festivities to begin. It was the official groundbreaking of the Hotel Twickenham and Huntsville had never seen such an elaborate spectacle.

At 2 pm, the nearby factories blew their whistles to welcome the hotel into existence. Brass bands boomed, crowds cheered, and a golden shovel—held by a Miss Elizabeth Cooper—officially broke ground.

The Hotel Twickenham claimed its title as the “Pride of Huntsville” during its heyday. An establishment steeped in elegance, Twickenham was the getaway of choice for dignitaries and traveling businessmen, and known as the venue where locals wined, dined, and enjoyed elaborate parties from 1915-1971.

Pictured: Groundbreaking ceremony of the Hotel Twickenham in 1914. Photo credit: Huntsville History Collection, The Historic Huntsville Quarterly, Huntsville Public Library Heritage Room

Its life on the corner of Clinton Avenue and Washington Street is one of glory, with stories that often involve the hotel’s famed manager Quincy B. Love. Adored by the community and hailed as one of the most active and progressive members of the town, his passing was greatly mourned.

Today, a municipal parking garage sits where the Hotel Twickenham once stood. But it is fondly remembered as “The Best American plan hotel in Alabama.”

Photo courtesy Huntsville Library Archives. Twickenham hotel (pictured left).

The Hotel Twickenham – “Pride Of Huntsville”

In many ways, the features of the Twickenham Hotel were firsts for Huntsville. Most notably, the hotel was advertised as being fireproof. This was important to many people at the time because fires at the nearby Huntsville Hotel devastated the community in both 1910 and 1911. Clearly, it was still at the forefront of Huntsvillians’ minds.

Creation of the hotel was headed by William F. Struve and Quincy B. Love who partnered to build it at the site of the old Huntsville City Hall.

“Bess Hay, William Struve’s niece, came up with the name ‘Twickenham’ for the hotel,” shared Donna Castellano, Executive Director of the Historic Huntsville Foundation. “The Clinton Avenue hotel had five stories, 80 rooms, and one elevator. And it opened with great fanfare in 1915 with a seated dinner for 200.”

“Never has there been a larger or more representative gathering in this city, for the response to invitations for the banquet was generous.” – The Times, March 11, 1915

Invitations to a grand opening banquet were sent out to the city and welcomed with much excitement. Hallways of the ornate hotel were decorated with bundles of flowers, and guests were treated to an exotic menu of green sea turtle, roast young turkey, and asparagus on toast.

Mr. Love spoke to guests and assured them that the hotel would run on a very high plane business plan. Music played softly in the background as the Florence Orchestra serenaded the room, and toasts were made to a bright future.

The Hotel’s Heyday

It was said that many traveling businessmen would arrange their itineraries around a stay at the Twickenham. Huntsville itself was a popular spot for hotel developments because it was situated between major trade routes. And the city’s scenic beauty even further convinced travelers to have their stopovers there.

For many years, the Twickenham was famous for its incredible service—no doubt thanks to Mr. Love—and delectable cuisine. Guests described the rooms as large, airy, light, and cheerful. They also appreciated the fair pricing when dining in at the establishment.

Twickenham, like many of the other early Huntsville hotels, offered auxiliary businesses like coffee shops, gift shops, pool halls, and a barbershop as well.

Parade down Clinton Avenue. Hotel Twickenham is pictured on the left. Photo credit: Huntsville History Collection, The Historic Huntsville Quarterly, Mary Medaris Burgess Lee

Under the attentive management of Love, the Hotel Twickenham won recognition as the “Best American plan hotel” in Alabama. And the sensation of the hotel showed no signs of stopping.

But in 1925, tragedy struck.

The Passing Of Mr. Love

“Death of Love Caused Sorrow,” was the headline of an article in the Times on June 8, 1925. Quincy B. Love passed away at 3 o’clock in the morning, and the city was devastated by the news.

Regarded as one of the most popular men in Huntsville, Love’s passing was observed as a “distinct community loss.”

According to the Times, “Mr. Love was perhaps the most popular hotel man in Alabama, especially with the traveling men. Nearly all of these knew him intimately, and the others who patronized him knew him but to love him.

Photo courtesy Huntsville Library archives.

“He came to Huntsville at a time when our city was practically without hotel facilities and built the magnificent Twickenham, standing as it does ‘The Pride of Huntsville.’”

Love was also remembered for his ability to bring together community leaders and create positive change. Described as a man who was “never satisfied with giving up,” he brought transformation to Huntsville that directed the city to where it is today.

The article closed with a final remark on Love’s success. “Whoever succeeds him there will find a standard of service that should never be lowered…He is gone now and we shall miss him. Peace be to his ashes and may the tender love and benediction of our Heavenly Father attend his loved ones and bless his memory.”

It was later reported that the auditorium at his funeral was full—a testament to the kind of man he was.

Fire insurance map that shows the Hotel Twickenham on Clinton Avenue. Courtesy Huntsville Library Archives.

A 1984 edition of The Historic Huntsville Quarterly of Local Architecture and Preservation stated “Mr. Love’s untimely death in 1925 dealt a blow to the Twickenham from which it never recovered. His wife managed it for a while, and then his son, Quincy, Jr., but never with his success.”

When the Russel Erskine was built in 1929, it created thriving competition for the existing Huntsville hotels. Although business at the Twickenham slowed down, it remained a popular venue for small parties and dances. Management of Twickenham was passed to different hands during its lifetime, but many still saw the hotel as a monument to Quincy B. Love.

Becoming The Clinton Avenue Garage

Although the hotel closed to guests in 1971, its popularity was briefly revived in 1974 when it served as a downtown senior center. The Fellowship Center, as it was called, transformed the old building into a place for seniors to enjoy dancing, laughing, and social gatherings.

Photo courtesy Huntsville Library archives.

Events at the Fellowship Center were many, and several took place in the Twickenham Hotel ballroom—including a Customs and Cultures luncheon in which people from other countries would bring food to share.

But as time went on, the space once again needed a new purpose. In 1975, the city council voted to build the Clinton Avenue parking garage on the site.

Photo courtesy Huntsville Library Archives.

On June 2, 1975, the hotel was demolished, along with other Clinton Avenue buildings to make way for the new city parking garage.

The Revitalization of Downtown Huntsville

Today, the Clinton Avenue parking garage has found new life with the addition of several retail shops to its ground floor. Now known as The Garage at Clinton Row, the development brought back several of the business services that were once offered near the Hotel Twickenham—a coffee shop, men’s wear, boutiques, and others.

The development for the Garage was completed in 2016 and celebrated with a grand opening party. Today, Clinton Avenue is a major retail destination for both local and regional shopping—and a place where locals spend time mingling.

As the City of Huntsville continues to grow, it’s incredible to look back at where we once were.

In the same spot, more than 100 years apart, Clinton Avenue was home to a grand opening celebration. Although the scenery has transformed, the love for our city and the hope for a better future hasn’t changed at all.

Do you have more information on the Hotel Twickenham? We always want to make sure we have the most accurate info. All information in this article is courtesy of the Huntsville Public Library archives. 

Contact Haley Clemons at haley@crunkletonassociates.com to add to this story. 

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haley_squareHALEY CLEMONS
MARKETING COORDINATOR
CRUNKLETON COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE GROUP
HALEY@CRUNKLETONASSOCIATES.COM

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