To me, all the best old downtowns in north Alabama are pretty similar from a historic places perspective. Most of them feature handsome, two-story 1870- to 1910-era homes, churches and commercial buildings. Most have interesting old train depots and some other landmarks that can compel you to imagine life in pioneer days.
At the same time, each one has a few features that give them their unique, individual sense of place.
In that regard, Cullman may be north Alabama’s most unique small city.
When I think about Athens, I think about how a lovely, old college is within walking distance of its historic downtown. When I think of Guntersville and Scottsboro, the state’s biggest lake comes to mind. For Fort Payne, it’s Lookout Mountain and the nostalgic vibe of Gault Avenue.
But when I think of Cullman, it’s monks, miniature replicas of religious landmarks from around the world, a spectacular Catholic church and “Die Deutsche Kolonie Von Nord Alabama” that come to mind.
The Ave Maria Grotto (miniature replicas of religious landmarks from around the world) is well known in the region. I believe it’s the city’s number one tourist attraction when it comes to drawing visitors from other states and countries. But there’s a lot more to see in Cullman, particularly if you are a historic-places enthusiast.
Ave Maria Grotto
See my post, Gallery: Ave Maria Grotto, for details and over 40 photos.
Another factor that makes Cullman very unique among small north Alabama cities is how five small bridges carry downtown traffic over the sunken railroad track that passes through the heart of downtown.
The track was lowered 30 feet below street level in the early 1910s. As a result, passing trains don’t impact the movement of traffic on those five streets.
Furthermore, the canopy of trees over the track in that area makes it feel like there are two separate historic downtowns with 1st Avenue S.E. as the main street of one and 2nd Street S.W. as the main street of the other.
I recently visited downtown Cullman for the first time since the April 27, 2011 tornado super outbreak. I knew that hundreds of homes, dozens of commercial buildings and several churches were damaged by an EF-4 twister that day, and many of the places that were completely destroyed were historic structures.
So, that was on my mind as I entered the downtown from the east on 3rd Street which is also U.S. Hwy. 278. The route takes you right to ground zero.
In the nine years since the tornado, the city has recovered amazingly. It’s still just as beautiful as ever, but it looks very different with so many of the big trees missing and a few barren lots where homes or shops once stood.
Here’s a before and after example of how the storm affected a formerly tree-filled part of the residential historic area:
Shown, from left: The c. 1898 Gist House in 1984 and how it appeared in May 2020.
The house is part of the mostly residential historic district. See Cullman Historic District below for several more photos.
The mostly-commercial Cullman Downtown Commercial Historic District, as it was listed with the National Register in 1985, contains two complete blocks and parts of six other blocks on the east side of the railroad track.
The tornado swept across the east part of the district and there are many new buildings that replaced some that were lost in the storm. They fit in nicely alongside their remaining 100 year old neighbors.
The district includes 1st Avenue S.E. which appears to be a very popular part of town when it comes to enjoying locally-owned restaurants, boutiques, gift shops and more.
One 1st Ave. S.E. block includes the c. 1890s Stiefelmeyer’s Building. The only remaining wood frame historic commercial building remaining in Cullman, it was individually listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
Stiefelmeyer’s Building (c. 1890s)
Some other visual highlights of the Downtown Commercial Historic District
Shown from top left: First United Methodist Church (c. 1924); Former Federal Building/Post Office (c. 1914); c. 1911 Fisher Building, center; 4th Street S.E. scene; 2nd Avenue S.E. scene; 1st Street scene; 1st Avenue S.E. scene; 1st Avenue S.E. scene; 1st Avenue S.E. scene; c. 1918 Drug Store Building; 1901-1905 German Bank Building, left, and 1894 Cullman Ice Co.; 1st Avenue S.E. scene; and the c. 1873 Weiss House, which was moved to 1st Avenue S.E. park in 1976.
NOTE: As far as buildings are concerned, the c. 1911 Fuller Brothers Ford Dealership Building was perhaps this district’s biggest loss on the day of the 2011 tornado. At the time of storm, a furniture/home furnishings store known as Little Bit of Everything was at the location. The owners built a new building that is similar in size to the old one. But now it’s home to a popular local restaurant, All Steak. See allsteakrestaurant.com.
Pictured: The c. 1911 Ford dealership building following the storm (Source: https://www.weather.gov/hun/4272011_cullman_county); and how the site appeared in May 2020.
The other side of the tracks
As I mentioned above, it’s like a second downtown on the other side of the tracks. Here’s a few photos from 2nd Street S.W.:
Just outside of the registered district, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church (the sanctuary is c. 1916) is a monumental structure that you need to see if you are visiting downtown Cullman to see historic buildings or places of worship, or to study architecture. It’s one of the most amazing churches found in north Alabama.
Fortunately, the 2011 tornado only damaged some of its windows.
On the north end of 1st Street S.E., the Cullman Warehouse District (not part of any of the nationally- or state-registered districts), features a mixture of old and new red brick buildings that are home to shops selling clothing, baked goods, gifts, coffee and gourmet food. There’s also a spa or two, and a nice farmer’s market is next door.
Learn more at this retail shopping destination at cullmanhistoricwarehousedistrict.com.
A few other notable sites are within walking distance of the warehouse district. The train station, which was registered with the National Register in 1976 as the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Depot, is next door to the farmers market. The Cullman County Museum — a replica of the home of the city’s founder — is a block away.
Shown: The Cullman County Museum, The Cullmann statue outside the museum and the c. 1913 train depot is currently home to The United Way.
Die Deutsche Kolonie Von Nord Alabama (the German Colony of North Alabama) was started by Johann G. Cullmann in 1873. He was a German immigrant who convinced a few German families from Cincinnati to help him start a new settlement in the dense forests of north Alabama.
Historic houses and churches shown above include the Clisby-McKay-Humphrey-Stiefelmeyer-Allred House (c. 1880); the Carothers-Brown-Robertson-Clemmons House (c. 1887, remodeled 1910); the Rambo-Abt House (c. 1907); the Ruel-Moyer House (c. 1903); the Leeth-Costos-Eidson-Bownes House (c. 1930) and more.
NOTE: Part of this district and one of Cullman’s oldest remaining homes, the c. 1877 Parker-Hutchens House, was destroyed by the 2011 tornado. It had stood for 134 years at the corner of 3rd Street S.E. and 6th Avenue S.E. The lot is currently empty.
Parker-Hutchens House (c. 1877)
As is almost always the case in a city with a great historic downtown, there are other structures of interest scattered about. Here are a few that I found on my recent visit that I didn’t include in any of the above galleries:
Here’s a Google map that will take you from downtown to the bridge: Directions/map.
Cullman is a unique road trip, weekend getaway or staycation destination for persons traveling from the Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga and Huntsville areas.
Historic downtown Hanceville is just a few miles to the south
If the Ave Maria Grotto, the multiple historic sites in downtown Cullman and the covered bridge do not fully satisfy your need for seeing old places, there’s more to see in nearby Hanceville.
Main Street in Hanceville
See a gallery with more photos of downtown Hanceville on this page:
Gallery: Downtown Hanceville
Sources and inspiration for this article include the following:
- Related applications to the National Register of Historic Places