Historic Preservation Month spotlights adaptive reuse in downtown Huntsville

Huntsville, Alabama is no longer the Deep South’s best-kept secret. Hundreds of residents move here each year to take advantage of our robust economy, booming job market, and many quality-of-life amenities.

Despite a growing trend of newcomers, Huntsville appreciates those who helped make Rocket City what it is today. During Historic Preservation Month in May, the forward-looking city honors its past, and this year was no different.

Preservation planner Katie Stamps felt it was important to shine a light on Huntsville’s downtown shopping district as part of the #SavingPlacesHsv campaign. As futuristic research and breakthroughs occur daily at Cummings Research Park and Redstone Arsenal, downtown Huntsville is a throwback to a decidedly simpler time.

To quote world renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, “You have to know the past to understand the present.”

make history

As part of the campaign, Stamps hosted two walking tours of downtown Huntsville that welcomed dozens of residents and visitors. Detailed videos on three iconic structures – Clinton Row Shops and Downtown Storage, the Yarbrough Building and I. Schiffman Building – first on facebook and are always searchable. The stamps also highlighted other downtown historic buildings on social media.

“It was exciting to focus on the evolution and history of our downtown neighborhood,” she said. “It’s important to hear from those who live, work and own property downtown and learn more about their stories of preservation, adaptive reuse and renovation.

Margaret Anne Goldsmith, owner of the I. Schiffman Building, said Historic Preservation Month is important because it is a time to celebrate the history of the community as represented by historic buildings. She added that the buildings document our past and provide a solid foundation for Huntsville now and for the future.

“Without our historic buildings, we would look like Anytown, USA,” she said. “Indeed, it is our historic buildings that provide the richness and diversity that encourages our emotional attachment to Huntsville, giving us a sense of place. A place we call home.

Preservation Highlights

Here’s a look at some of the places featured in the 2022 Saving Places campaign.

Downtown Huntsville, Inc., located in the former Yarbrough Hotel, wanted the storefront side of the building to make it easy for residents and visitors to come in and find out what’s going on.

Yarbrough Building – 127 Washington Street NE

Part of the former Yarbrough Hotel now houses downtown Huntsville, Inc. (DHI). Stamps said DHI is a great example of a group that invested in downtown Huntsville while simultaneously working to revitalize it.

Many features of the old hotel are still visible to visitors, including the original tiling. The lobby, which is on the Holmes Avenue side, is also still intact.

“In its heyday, it was one of the best hotels in northern Alabama,” said Chad Emerson, president and CEO of DHI.

The building is home to other tenants, including the City of Huntsville’s Community Development Office and a host of technology and creative businesses. DHI wanted the storefront side of the building so that residents and visitors could easily walk in and find out what’s going on.

A photo of the three-story I. Schiffman Building.  It has a stone facade and a yellow side.  There are green trees around.

There are plenty of iconic structures in downtown Huntsville, but few are as iconic as the three-story I. Schiffman Building.

I. Schiffman Building – 231 Eastside Square

There are plenty of iconic structures in downtown Huntsville, but few are as iconic as the three-story I. Schiffman Building. Known for its neo-Romanesque exterior, the building has a long and rich history since its construction in 1845.

One of the earliest known photos of the building shows a sign in the second story window stating that it was a dry goods business operated by Smith-Herstein & Co. in the 1860s. During the Civil War, it was used by Union officers.

In 1895, the Southern Savings and Loan Association acquired the property and commissioned Nashville architect George W. Thompson to transform the Federal-style building into Huntsville Romanesque Revival architecture.

Isaac Schiffman purchased the property in 1905, and his family’s businesses have operated from the building ever since. Goldsmith said the building underwent a complete renovation in 1998, and the third floor is now a residential apartment with a modern kitchen and bathroom.

“My efforts since taking ownership of the building have been to maintain the architectural integrity of the building while modifying the use of each floor to meet the changing needs of downtown Huntsville,” she said.

A storefront at Clinton Row stores and downtown storage displays various items including dresses, signs and other trinkets.  There is a canopy above and the sky is blue.

Clinton Row Shops and Downtown Storage offer mixed-use retail and office space.

Clinton Row Shops and Downtown Storage – 101 Clinton Ave NE

Few downtown Huntsville building owners have embraced the concept of adaptive reuse like David Johnson, owner of Clinton Row Shops and downtown Huntsville. Located at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Jefferson Street, the four-story structure continues to evolve.

Built in the mid-1880s, it was originally Van Valkenburg & Matthews, a farm supply store. Since that time it has been the site of at least two furniture stores, including Heilig-Myers. When Johnson bought the property in 2000, he turned it into Downtown Storage. This evolved into an assortment of storage, mixed-use commercial spaces and offices.

In addition to much of the original brick, visible from the interior, the building includes the original freight elevator used to transport grain and farm supplies from floor to floor.

Scattered throughout the building are several retail stores and boutiques as well as artists, craftspeople, a photography studio, hair salon, and hair salon. It’s also home to Catacomb 435, a small speakeasy by reservation only. On the ground floor, a few local groups train after office hours.

“Adaptive use worked for this location,” Johnson said.

To see more spotlights from the 2022 #SavingPlacesHSV campaign, visit the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission Facebook Page.

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