What kind of city do you get when more than 130 military generals return there to enjoy retirement, hundreds of active aerospace engineers and research executives bring families there to live, and antebellum homes and structures built there are preserved as private residences and offices?
The answer is a city like Huntsville, Alabama.
When delegates to Select Traveler 2014 gather there next March 30 to April 1, they will be greeted by one of the South’s most livable places, a progressive city with superb schools, a thriving arts community, a penchant for historic preservation and a local dining scene many larger cities would envy.
I traveled to Huntsville in July to get a feel for its allure as our next Select Traveler Conference destination. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center has long been its signature attraction, but this city’s aerospace heritage is just the beginning of its appeal; I spent a full day touring Huntsville before we even got to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
A Diverse History
During lunch downtown at Sam and Greg’s, a local pizza eatery, I asked Judy Ryals, president and CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau; Pam Williams, her tourism sales manager; and Jessica Carlton, her marketing manager, what they most wanted bankers to take away from their trip to Huntsville next spring.
“That we are not one-dimensional,” they answered in unison.
“The Space and Rocket Center is what the world knows us for, and rightfully so, but we have so much more to offer,” said Ryals. “Our antebellum history, our thriving restaurant scene, our events — all are part of the story here.
“We want these banks to come downtown and see for themselves everything you’re seeing on this trip,” said Williams.
“Five years ago, there might have been five good restaurants downtown,” Ryals said later as we got up to leave. “Today, there are five times that many. And more are on the way.”
They walked me over to Harrison Brothers Hardware Store on the city’s square. It’s one thing to preserve homes and structures, but to preserve Alabama’s oldest continuously run hardware store is quite another. Established in 1871, the downtown icon is a hodge-podge of sights, including candies, gadgets, cookware and garments. Cluttered shelves climb the walls from its worn wood floors, and a wood-burning heater is still anchored in place as if waiting to be used.
The city’s antebellum home district, Twickenham, is the state’s largest. Dozens of homes dating to the early 1800s have been restored and are being lived in, many with their builders’ names and building dates noted by distinctive markers. Local guides drive or walk groups through this district almost daily.
Williams pointed out the Pope House, built in 1814 on a hill overlooking Huntsville by the city’s original developer, Leroy Pope. Then we saw what is called the Spite House, a very tall home that local legend says was built by a business adversary to block the panoramic view from Pope’s home.
Speaking of views, one of the best in Huntsville can be enjoyed from Burritt on the Mountain, a 167-acre preserve that sits atop Round-Top Mountain above the city. Dr. William Henry Burritt’s distinctive mansion served as the catalyst for the development of this community venue for weddings, receptions and children’s educational programming. Burritt left the entire estate to the city upon his death in 1955.
“We have a wedding up here every Saturday of the year,” our host Caroline Kelly told me. “With the exception of major holidays like Christmas, we’re booked.”
Interpreters were busy on the estate’s Whimsical Woods learning trail for children while we were there. It will be replaced next year with another creation designed to teach children about the outdoors, history, craftsmanship and self-reliance.
Constitution Village is a re-creation of life in the city around 1819. On this site, in July of that year, constitutional delegates gathered to ratify the state’s Constitution and enter the Union as the country’s 22nd state. At that time, the most suitable place to meet was a local cabinetmaker’s shop, which has been re-created there.
John Boardman was the local publisher in that day, and his printing shop has also been re-created. A Connecticut native who moved to Huntsville once he learned his trade, Boardman followed the progress of the constitutional convention each day and went back to his shop to set type and print newspapers offering coverage of the proceedings.
The home of Stephen Neill is another focal point of Constitution Village. The entire family shared a bedroom upstairs, and the kitchen next door included an ugly jug, a small pot that was marked by a grotesque face. Because slaves and children could not read, they were taught that anything in the ugly jug was off limits and not to be used for cooking.