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