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Larry Bleiberg

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Weekend Getaway: Craft culture has spawned new urban playgrounds in Huntsville, Alabama

Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment

Photograph courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County CVB

Home to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville began its ascent as a vacation destination a half century ago on the heels of the moon landing. Visitors still come to experience the excitement of the space race; lucky ones (kids and adults alike!) even spend a few days at Space Camp. The city has a well-earned reputation as a science wonderland, a place where a Saturn V rocket lords over the skyline like Huntsville’s Eiffel Tower. But if you think this city of 195,000 is simply a place to marvel at spaceships, hold on. There’s quite a bit more to the story.

As a military and aerospace research hub, Huntsville likes to brag it has more engineers per capita than any other U.S. city. And it turns out that when you gather together so much brainpower, surprising things happen. The same skills required to build rockets are transferable to making beer, crafting coffee, even whipping up art—enterprises that flourish here.

Davidson Center for Space Exploration

Photograph from Bigstock

“You can’t go to the moon without excellent engineering, but it also takes amazing creativity,” says Danny Davis, who left his NASA job to handmake guitars and host concerts at Tangled String Studios, his workshop/performance space located in a corner of a former cotton mill. “That creativity permeates this city.”

How else to explain Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment center, a sprawling 1901 factory, reborn as the South’s largest privately owned arts complex. Like most things in town, it has a connection to science. The 170,000-square-foot industrial site, located just over a mile southwest of downtown, was redeveloped by a local entrepreneur who made his fortune in genetic research.

The hulking brick building once processed the region’s cotton into cloth, and later manufactured boots for the U.S. Army. Now, walking the wide-planked wooden floors, you pass more than 150 studios occupied by abstract painters, bookbinders, hand-press printers, and musical-instrument makers like Davis. Public workshops teach everything from building medicine drums to painting flesh tones, and crowds come out spring through fall for concerts on the building’s loading dock.

First Baptist Church

Photograph courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County CVB

Once you leave Lowe Mill and begin exploring the rest of town, you’re reminded that engineers can also be unabashedly nerdy. Huntsville sometimes gives visitors the impression they’re wandering around the set of The Big Bang Theory. This is a place where a charity run follows a double-helix path (inspired by the shape of DNA), and where the First Baptist Church has a rocket-shaped steeple and a 154-foot-long mural of Jesus rising through the heavens called Cosmic Christ.

Or consider Huntsville’s new Minor League Baseball team, the Rocket City Trash Pandas. The name, chosen by popular vote, references a line from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. And then there’s the fact that the city has not just one, but at least two restaurants—Toybox Bistro and Supper Heroes—inspired by sci-fi action figures.

It’s hard to say what city founder John Hunt would make of it all. In 1805, the former Colonial soldier and North Carolina sheriff sought to make his fortune in the wilds of northern Alabama, building a cabin not far from the Tennessee River. Six years later, his settlement became the state’s first incorporated city, and briefly its capital.

But because the city center was built over karst limestone riddled with springs and caves, it doesn’t allow for high-rises, and Huntsville never developed a dense business district. Its tallest building stands a mere eleven stories, not even rocket-size. Although surrounded by vibrant neighborhoods, the downtown itself feels quaint, on the scale of a middling county seat. But looks can be deceiving. Within the next five years, Huntsville’s expected to pass Birmingham to become the state’s most populous city.

Campus 805

Photograph courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County CVB

The courthouse square area at downtown’s center is beginning to show signs of life, recently adding a smattering of restaurants and bars, and its coffee shops now buzz with conversation even on a weekend afternoon. Downtown’s also home to Cotton Row, one of the best restaurants in a state that has been winning dining honors for years. Run by James Beard Award–nominated chef James Boyce, the intimate white-tablecloth spot features surprising seasonal dishes like juniper-crusted rack of venison, as well as fresh takes on classics like pan-seared crispy catfish with cucumber kimchi and sriracha yogurt.

For a completely different evening out, though, head to Campus 805, a long-shuttered public middle school less than a dozen blocks from Lowe Mill that has been reborn as what might be best described as an adult-beverage theme park. It’s home to two breweries, a wine-tasting room, a distillery, several restaurants, and two bars. There’s also an ax-throwing studio, virtual golf course and pinball palace, and coffee shop.

Straight to Ale, one of the city’s first breweries and a Campus 805 anchor tenant, occupies the school’s former gymnasium, while wooden flooring from the basketball court now tops its bar. Co-founder Bruce Weddendorf pushes aside a row of school lockers to reveal a crowded speakeasy also run by Straight to Ale, where the specialty is 140-proof absinthe, distilled on site. Sipping it, you have to wonder if any daydreaming seventh grader (or assistant principal) could fathom such things could occur in a former classroom.

The campus is a key site on the city’s ten-stop Craft Brew Trail, and also on its Craft Coffee Trail, which links ten independent shops. Baristas and brewers say the two beverages are naturals for Huntsville: Both require tinkering with machinery and working with ratios and formulas. “There’s a lot of science behind it,” says Andrew Judge, who, along with his wife, Lee, transformed their Sugar Belle cupcake truck into a brick-and-mortar sweets and coffee shop on the west side of town near the University of Alabama-Huntsville campus. It’s equipped with home video game systems played on vintage console television sets.

Stovehouse

Photograph courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County CVB

The atmosphere’s just as playful at Stovehouse, about a mile west of downtown, another shuttered factory that once produced furnaces and cooking equipment. It reopened last year as an indoor/outdoor dining and entertainment garden. On summer nights, hundreds mingle around a fire pit slurping ramen or chowing down street tacos. They stick around for free concerts and yard games like foot pool, played with soccer balls on an oversized pool table.

City leaders hope these projects will give Huntsville an edge in the race to attract and keep Millennials and Gen-Z workers. While the region is booming—with a Mazda Toyota plant about to open and a new $1 billion FBI campus on the way—they realize the city not only needs to offer jobs, but places to play.

So far, it’s working, says Davis, the engineer turned guitar maker. “The place is exploding. It’s just becoming really great.”

Indeed, you could say that the city NASA built is itself blasting off.

More to Explore

Twickenham Historic District
Just a few blocks from downtown, visitors can wander the state’s largest collection of antebellum homes. Among the sixty-five structures is the Weeden House, which dates to 1819 and is the oldest house in Alabama open to visitors. It spotlights the work of artist and writer Maria Howard Weeden, known for her photo-like paintings of former slaves and servants.

Camp at Midcity
This fun collection of permanently based food trucks, a bar, and a shipping-container coffee shop offers a chance to sip, mingle, and take in music while dining at telephone wire–spool tables.

Hildegard’s
Feast on bratwurst, schnitzel, and Black Forest cake, and raise a stein to the émigré scientists who created Huntsville’s space industry at this authentic German restaurant.

AC Hotel
This stylish Marriott brand has a slick, European feel. Recently opened on the edge of downtown, it’s within walking distance of the Huntsville Museum of Art as well as the Von Braun Center civic center—which hosts concerts, plays, festivals, and sporting events—and its brand-new Mars Music Hall.

Mars Music Hall

Photograph courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County CVB

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.

Shop ‘til you drop on Homewood, Alabama’s 18th Street South

Homewood, Alabama

Savvy Birmingham shoppers in search of the perfect gift head “over the mountain” to the cozy suburb of Homewood. Their destination? Eighteenth Street South, a wide, old-fashioned boulevard with an abundance of locally owned boutiques and restaurants. It’s a place where shopkeepers greet customers by name and sell hard-to-find gems, such as vintage barware and wood-pulp sheets. The avenue, which stretches less than a mile, has been attracting customers since the late 1920s, when leaders of the newly formed Homewood decided their town needed its own shopping district. Eighteenth Street South soon emerged as its main street—a role it continues to play nearly a century later. Finding the boulevard is easy: It’s just down the hill from Vulcan, the towering iron statue and symbol of Birmingham commanding the crest of Red Mountain. In other words, one local treasure helps guide the way to another.

Seibels
Second homes are first priority at this camp and cottage outfitter, which keeps lake and beach retreats in tip-top, rustic-chic shape. Local woodshops build most of the furniture, including the popular swinging beds. Staff designers can help spruce up a home anywhere in the Southeast. seibelscottage.com

Alabama Goods
Salute the Yellowhammer State at this shop that sells everything from cheese straws to oil paintings—all of it cooked, crafted, or created in Alabama. Pick up a state-shaped coaster cut from carpeting or a T-shirt emblazoned with “Est. 1819,” celebrating the year Alabama joined the union. And don’t miss the Earthborn Pottery dinnerware, which graces the tables at Hot and Hot Fish Club, a popular Birmingham restaurant. alabamagoods.com

Johnny's Restaurant
Johnny’s Restaurant

Photograph courtesy of Johnny's Restaurant

Johnny’s Restaurant
With farm-raised vegetables, fresh Gulf seafood, and a James Beard–nominated chef, this lunch spot is not your typical meat-and-three. You’ll find classics such as fried catfish, chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, and fried green tomatoes, along with new twists like Parmesan grit cakes. For dessert, tuck into the Girl Scout Tagalongs chocolate peanut butter torte. johnnyshomewood.com

a.k.a. Girl Stuff
This sassy store offers moderately priced, but decidedly fun, apparel and gifts. Owner Dee Tipps usually keeps a pitcher of cranberry margaritas at the ready for customers and delights in sharing recent finds, from plush pajama pants with a cellphone pocket to faux fur bags. facebook.com/akagirlstuff

White Flowers Gallery
Step inside this enchanting shop and enter a dream world of blossoms, candles, and clothing, almost all of it white (hence the store’s name). You won’t even find a scuff on the floor; it’s repainted every Saturday night. Leave your coffee outside before perusing the merchandise, which includes christening gowns, silk blouses, and botanical-themed shirts. whiteflowers.com

Homewood, Alabama
Soho Retro

Photograph courtesy of Soho Retro

Soho Retro
Travel back in time at this mid-century modern gallery featuring vintage and replica furniture from the forties, fifties, and sixties. A knowledgeable staff can aid customers in navigating Lucite tables, Bentwood dressers, and Mad Men­–style barware. Complete the throwback look with abstract art and wall-to-wall shag carpeting, available to order. shopsohoretro.com

Homewood, Alabama
Three Sheets

Photograph courtesy of Three Sheets

Savage’s Bakery & Deli
This Birmingham institution has been indulging the city’s sweet tooth since 1939, with cinnamon roll meltaways, custom cakes, petits fours, and more. Stop in and pick up a smiley-face cookie—or a dozen. Covered in orange icing and featuring a chocolate mouth and eyes, the butter cookie is so popular, the bakery created round business cards in its image. shopsavagesbakery.com

Three Sheets
Make bedtime a dream at this upscale home boutique selling everything from headboards to slippers. Shoppers swear by the Italian Legna sheets made from wood pulp (they feel like silk but breathe like cotton). And kids love the selection of stuffed animals, because few things say “sweet dreams” better than a plush Fuddlewuddle Elephant. threesheetslinen.com

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Southbound.

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