Huntsville, the high-tech city with a penchant for space exploration and other futuristic pursuits, also has an admirable affinity for times gone by.
Proof is at three locations just west of downtown, and all three have their arms wide open for group tours.
Decades ago, one was a textile mill that became a shoe factory; another, a sprawling industrial site where stoves were built; and the third, a high school. Today, they are an artist colony, a mixed-use dining/entertainment/retail development, and a place that still feels like a high school but now houses breweries, restaurants and an axe-throwing business.
Lowe Mill ART and Entertainment
Lowe Mill opened in 1901 and was Huntsville’s fifth textile mill. It went bankrupt in 1932, became warehouse space and then was revitalized as a shoe factory. Among other things, it made the majority of the jungle boots American soldiers wore in Vietnam. That industry faded, too, and warehousing took over again.
However, in 2001, the industrial site took on a completely different feel as Lowe Mill Art and Entertainment. Spread through multiple buildings are 150 studios for more than 200 artists. Visitors stroll at will, meet artists and are likely find treasures to take home.
There are painters, fashion designers, ceramic artists, jewelry makers, glassmakers, photographers, sculptors, printmakers, woodworkers and more. One ceramic studio has a two-hour class that is ideal as a group activity.
One of Lowe Mills’ most appealing spaces is Tangled String Studios. This is the business of Danny Davis, a space industry mechanical engineer who now makes beautiful guitars. You can watch him and others at work and perhaps listen to a performer on the studio’s small stage. Davis is far from a mass producer, and most of his work is custom ordered.
It’s also easy to count Lowe Mills’ food purveyors as artists. Rafael’s Table has pastas, sauces and oils. Pofta Burna International Cafe has both sweet and savory crepes (the Dracula crepe has roasted chicken, organic spinach, pesto and more). Pizzelle’s Confections has chocolates too pretty to resist.
A strategically timed group visit could include Lowe Mills outdoor market (Saturdays from May through late October) or a Concert on the Dock, featuring warm-weather performances by a variety of artists. The dock in this case is a loading dock, which is in the shadow of the mill’s relic water tower.
Stovehouse, another old-is-new destination, is only a mile away. While Lowe Mill is conspicuously industrial in appearance, Stovehouse hints at its birth as the Martin Stamping and Stove Factory. Old tanks and tumblers, a large compressor and enduring trusses sit among buildings with more modern exteriors.
Construction of the factory’s original building began about 1928, and the complex eventually grew to have 226,000 square feet in 31 contiguous buildings, according to Stovehouse chief operating officer, Jonathan Barnette.
While Martin made gas and electric heaters, Barnette said, “we created a backyard oasis in the city. We’re manufacturing leisure.”
A focal point at Stovehouse is an open space called the Leisure Lawn and Food Garden. Leisure comes from games such as bocce ball, foot billiards, cornhole and four-square. Food comes from a variety of outlets such as Komodo Ramen, Parm + Pepper (specialty sandwiches, pizza, salads), Bark and Barrel BBQ, Oscar Moon (ice cream) and the delightfully named Oh Crepe!
Community seating (indoor and outdoor) means groups can reunite after patronizing different food outlets, and they can be mobile with adult beverages while at Stovehouse. One source is Pour Me Another, and another is the Brewers Cooperative, a collaborative establishment of five big-name Alabama brands. It includes a 220-seat restaurant and 40 beer taps.
There is an outdoor stage for various entertainers, and private spaces that tour groups can secure.
“Groups could have one of the Stovehouse restaurants cater a meal, or they could visit restaurants on their own and then sit together in a reserved location,” Barnette said.
Campus No. 805
Barely a three-block walk from Stovehouse is a third example of Huntsville’s adaptive reuse of old structures. You’ll hear it called Campus No. 805, Campus 805 or simply 805.
Regardless of what you call it, groups will experience a hefty sense of déja vu when they enter, because Campus No. 805 once was a middle school and a high school. Some hallways remain as they were when filled with teenagers: There still are decal-covered lockers, and some walls feature the ubiquitous beige paint used in so many schools.
What’s dramatically different is that the tagline for Campus No. 805 is “the South’s premier brewery and entertainment venue.”
Yes, step right in at the several buildings on campus to find Yellowhammer Brewing, Straight to Ale, Pints and Pixels (beer and video games), the Lone Goose Saloon, 3rd Circle Cellars (wine, cider, mead and tapas) and the Bar (16 taps and weekend live entertainment), among others.
Extending the “this isn’t like my high school” feeling are businesses such as the Huntsville Ballroom for dance instruction, Arcadia Tattoo, the Off Beat Coffee Studio (specialty coffee and vinyl records) and Ronnie’s Raygun (beer and pinball machines).
Even though real high school is a thing of the past for Campus No. 805, sports remain important. X-Golf Huntsville offers virtual golf (with the addition of a permanent 19th hole bar), and Civil Axe Throwing offers a bigger test of accuracy than shooting free throws on the basketball court ever did.
In keeping with Huntsville’s “old is new” concept, Lowe Mill, Stovehouse and Campus No. 805 are ready-made complements to the city’s biggest attraction — the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the world’s largest space museum.
When you think about it, there is no better adaptive reuse for a Space Shuttle or a 363-foot-long Saturn V rocket that can’t fly anymore than as centerpieces at Alabama’s most visited attraction.