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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Preserving Historic Downtown Buildings

The (third) Madison County Courthouse, demolished in the late 1960s to make way for the current Courthouse. (Photo: City of Huntsville)
In light of the impending East Clinton School purchase by a private developer who wants to tear down most of the Depression-era school for single-family residences, the City launched an “Imagine Huntsville” topic on what to do with East Clinton and other historic buildings in Downtown and in the adjacent historic districts. Over 750 votes were cast in the two-month period this topic was open on the website, and a standing-room only crowd attended a finale event at the old Regions Bank on March 25th to provide their own input on the top submissions. I will discuss the top ideas for each site below.

The former First National Bank building on
West Side Square. (Photo: James Vandiver)
First National Bank building (old Regions Bank on the Square)

A bank operated in this building on West Side Square from 1835 to 2010, when Regions Bank closed their branch. Since then, the City of Huntsville and Big Spring Partners (BSP) have maintained the building, leasing the offices to local companies and organizations as well as using the lobby for events. With BSP now all but disbanded and replaced by a private business association, the City wants the building to be put to better use, and preferably not under City control.
  • Open an "Arts Bank"
The idea here is to create a hub for the arts downtown, with musical and theatrical performances, independent/classic movie showings, etc. in the large open lobby, and use the remainder of the building as office space for the various art groups that are currently scattered around the city.

Not a bad idea, but it’ll cost a lot of money to renovate and maintain the building, and it’s unlikely that the City will pick up the tab. The participating arts groups would likely have to raise the funds to operate the Bank.
  • Create a "Museum of Huntsville"
Huntsville has a transportation museum, an art museum, a children’s museum, and a space museum, but not a museum highlighting the unique history of the city. Once again, the questions here are: who is going to pay for it and, better yet, maintain it?

East Clinton Elementary School

The art deco entrance of East Clinton School. (Photo: James Vandiver)
A school operated on this site in Old Town since the 1820s until last August, when the school was moved to the new Blossomwood campus. The current building was built in the 1930s, and is one of the last Art Deco buildings in Huntsville. In December, the School Board approved the purchase of the building by The Broadway Group (TBG), better known for developing most of the Dollar General stores in the area. The owner of TBG, Bob Broadway, originally planned to tear down the entire school to construct eleven single-family homes, but his proposal was rejected by the Historic Preservation Commission in March. He has come back with two new proposals that still demolishes much of the school but keeps the architecturally significant front of the school, which will be leased to a community group or sold as residential condos. This proposal is awaiting approval by the Commission pending a state Ethics Commission judgement on potential conflicts of interest with a majority of the board members. A private school has also offered to buy the building. UPDATE (4/25): Mr. Broadway has dropped his offer to buy the school.
  • Arts Center
This is similar to the Arts Bank described above, only bigger. This was also a popular idea for the Annie Merts Center. (It seems from this that people really want an arts center downtown. UAH, are you listening?)
  • Community Center
Convert the gym and auditorium into a community center, with an exercise center and pool facilities. This particular idea also proposed upscale condos for the remainder of the school (see Annie Merts idea below for possible limitations).

Annie Merts Center

The Annie Merts Center (Photo: City of Huntsville)
This building at the edge of Old Town used to be Huntsville Middle School, and before that it was Huntsville High School. In the 1980s, the building was converted to the main offices for Huntsville City Schools. The school system has expressed a desire to move out of the facility to a new location.
  • Convert to Condos
Convert the entire school into upscale loft condos, and possibly some ground-floor retail. Only one problem: zoning. The current zoning for Annie Merts (as well as East Clinton) prohibits anything but single-family homes, a school, a church, or a public facility (such as a city-owned arts center or park). The property can be rezoned to allow multi-family residences at the request of the landowner; however, Old Town residents have historically resisted such rezonings.
  • Revert to School
There were several ideas that advocated this for Annie Merts. One poster discussed using the building for Huntsville High’s new 9th Grade Academy (though that has already been approved for a location behind the existing high school); another suggested a school for gifted students.

Other buildings
  • Move the County Courthouse
The existing Madison County Courthouse. (Photo: James Vandiver)
I've heard descriptions of this monolithic 1960s building ranging from “awful” to “ugly” to “whoever designed that building must have been on LSD!” It replaced what is generally regarded today as a beautiful Greek Revival building built in 1914. The Courthouse, along with the many other examples of urban renewal in the CBD, is a perfect example of what happens when people have an “out with the old, in with the new” philosophy when it comes to preserving historic buildings. It is definitely something to think about as we consider the future of other historic buildings downtown. 

In the near future, it is likely that the Courthouse (as well as City Hall) will be relocated to new buildings, as the cost of maintaining the buildings becomes more than building anew. 

1 comment:

Samantha said...

I am in favor of Mr. Broadway's proposal to keep part of the school and build houses on the rest of the block the school currently occupies. I live in the neighborhood and dread the thought of the school sitting vacant for years and becoming an eyesore -- I think that moving forward thoughtfully is not an "out with the old" philosophy. There are a few historical buildings that are being preserved with no plan to use them or renovate them. Neglected, empty buildings are not what I have in mind with I talk about preservation. The school needs some work to become something else. I have not seen any group other than Mr. Broadway's come forward with money and a plan to make something happen. I have also heard that if the deal with Mr. Broadway falls through, Huntsville City Schools will erect a fence around the property to keep people out. I was under the impression that the private school deal fell through for East Clinton School -- the school in question felt that East Clinton needed too many updates and it was too expensive. I have not seen any information on this since the Feb 1 article you referenced.