Recently, we announced that downtown Huntsville would soon have its first luxury boutique hotel. The Curio by Hilton Hotel – 106 Jefferson is an exciting addition to the area that will usher in a new wave of high-end accommodations and meeting space. While many know the spot on Jefferson Street as the former Hale Brothers Furniture building, its history stretches back much further.
In fact, in 1858, the block was home to the famed Huntsville Hotel—an elegant inn that was described as “the town’s first real hostelry.”
In the same spot, 160 years apart, 106 Jefferson will be reinvented as a modern boutique hotel.
The Bell Tavern Becomes The Huntsville Hotel
In the early 1800s, locals and traveling salesmen would visit the northwest corner of the city square to enjoy a stay at the Bell Tavern. Although the site had endured many changes in ownership, it somehow managed to thrive for several years before falling into the hands of Alexander Johnson in 1855.
According to The Historic Huntsville Quarterly, disaster struck when Johnson “leased the stables of the Tavern to a Mr. Thomason while retaining ownership of the equipment—the buggies, harnesses, etc.—as well as retaining ownership of the tavern house, including numerous lodging rooms and ‘The Owl’ dining and bar facilities.”
It wasn’t long until the Bell Tavern was the victim of a major fire, which Johnson claimed was the work of an arsonist.
After the fire, the Tavern maintained a few rooms for guests but it never returned to its former glory. That’s when plans were made to build a new kind of modern hotel on the same site, one grander than ever before.
The Huntsville Hotel—Known For Comfort And Extravagance
If you walked down Jefferson Street in the 1890s, the massive doors of the Huntsville Hotel would greet you as you watched the town’s elite being escorted from their horses and carts. The doorman may have given you a nod as you looked up to examine the hotel’s four stories, complete with ironwork trimming. Everything in view would exude the elegance of the time.
As you strolled inside, you would see the main parlor with comfortable leather armchairs, an ornate fireplace, and curtains that reached from the ceiling to the floor. Newspapers of the day described the design as “tasty and elegant”—a perfect echo of the Victorian era.
The hotel was successful for many years, including during the Civil War and through a nasty bout of Yellow Fever that affected much of Alabama near the end of the nineteenth century.
Even during wartime, the Huntsville Hotel was able to keep up the spirits of visitors and locals by continuing to host lavish parties and grand balls. Grand Concert Troupes performed at the Huntsville Hotel charging only 50 cents per ticket.
In 1883, a production of Pirates of Penzance played in the stunning dining hall of the inn. It seemed nothing could get the old hotel down.
During the Yellow Fever scare, the hotel was reportedly full of citizens from nearby cities seeking refuge during the summer months when the illness was at its peak. Many guests from Memphis hid away in the cozy rooms at the hotel and waited for the outbreak to end.
As its success continued to grow, an additional 65 rooms were added and the property underwent a major renovation/expansion in 1888.
The Huntsville Hotel was beloved for decades until two separate fires claimed the site, leaving only ashes behind.
History Repeats Itself
After what many Huntsville papers reported as “the most devastating fire in the city’s history,” the Huntsville Hotel suffered the same fate as its predecessor, The Bell Tavern. Curious onlookers stood outside the building aghast at what they saw. As the smoke plumes filled the air above them, it became clear to the crowd that this event marked the end of the Huntsville Hotel.
While there were two different fires—one in 1910 and another in 1911—the landscape on Jefferson and Spring Street changed dramatically after the fire on November 12, 1911, as the entire block was destroyed. The total losses from damages were estimated at $250,000, which is equivalent to around $6.3 million today.
Staff Writer at the Huntsville Times, Weldon Payne, wrote a recount of the day that ran in the daily newspaper 47 years after the second fire. In it he states:
“There was a fire on Jefferson Street. Many crowded close to it. Heat from the leaping flames must have felt good reaching through the cold November air to touch their faces. It had done so on the same location almost exactly a year before.”
J.E. Penney, the hotel’s owner at the time, had made plans to rebuild from the ashes following the fire of 1910. But after the second fire nearly a year later, he decided to abandon any hope of bringing back the once vibrant inn.
It took years for the city to rebuild the block. And old fire insurance maps show the street between Clinton Avenue and Spring Street are barren in 1913. It wasn’t until 1915 that someone found interest in the land and made plans to rebuild the block.
By 1928, progress had been made. The Jefferson Street block was now home to the Alabama Power Company and the new Jefferson Theatre. Things were slowly returning to normal—minus the charm and convenience of one of Huntsville’s most popular hotels.
It wouldn’t be long until other famed hotels took center stage and accommodated the many traveling salesmen who planned long stopovers in town. Due to its acclaimed hospitality and beautiful scenery, Huntsville was a popular spot to relax between business meetings.
By April 1914, the Hotel Twickenham had a grand opening—complete with parade—the next block over on Clinton Avenue. The Russel Erskine and Hotel Yarbrough also opened to guests soon after. Downtown enjoyed many glory days as the city’s mecca for lavish accommodations and luxury travel.
But as the glitz and glamour of downtown faded in the following years, the city moved much of its efforts toward expanding other neighborhoods. The days of hotels dominating downtown came to a gradual end.
Hale Brothers Furniture
Today, many people regard 106 Jefferson as the old Hale Brothers Furniture store. For decades, everyone in Huntsville knew about the furniture shop on Jefferson Street. But prior to opening its storefront on Jefferson, Hale Brothers could be found on Clinton Avenue. It wasn’t until 1956 that it moved into its iconic spot where the new Curio by Hilton Hotel is being built today.
In an interview with the Huntsville Times, Clyde “Sonny” Hale shared that he “loved these buildings” [on Jefferson Street] and wanted to own them someday. “That was one of my goals in life,” he said. “Something told me to buy them.” And so he did. (Article by: Marian Accardi, Times Business Writer, 12/16/01)
Hale Brothers Furniture remained in operation until 2002 when it liquidated its stock and officially closed its doors. After 55 years of business, the team still reflected on the joys of doing business in downtown Huntsville. For the Hale team, the closing was both a “fun” and “traumatic experience,” simply because their customers had become such an integral part of their lives.
Looking Toward The Future
That brings us to today. 106 Jefferson Street, whether publically recognized or not, is a symbol of the city’s resilience. Its history has come full circle, as it will once again welcome guests to enjoy a stay in our city and invite locals to mingle at its restaurant or rooftop bar.
We can’t wait for construction to begin so you can have a small glimpse into the past when the block transforms to house the city’s newest boutique hotel.
Phase two is the creation of the property’s retail hub, Gaslight Alley. This new area will be a new kind of shopping experience in the city. Described as “old-world”, the alley will encompass many retail shops along a cobblestone walkway. (Read more about its aesthetics here.)
We caught up with two of the coming businesses to see what we can expect in the coming months at Gaslight Alley.
As we enter the second month of 2020, we thought it was time to provide our thoughts on the state of the retail market both nationally and locally.
2019 ended on a strong note as year-over-year retail sales—minus auto sales and gasoline—grew 5.9% in December, according to the U.S. Census ...