Don’t dodge Decatur’s historic downtown
Known for being home to popular museums, outdoor recreation areas, an epic hot air balloon festival and some of the biggest industrial plants in north Alabama, Decatur also has a downtown that fans of historic places and streetscapes will enjoy.
As it is with most old cities, it’s easy to bypass Decatur’s historic places while making your way to its better-known attractions or new shopping centers. Many visitors, as well as a large number of out-of-towners on their way to work, pass through the north side of town unaware of what’s found just a few yards from the primary thoroughfares.
Alabama’s 9th largest city, Decatur sits at the water’s edge at the Tennessee River’s Wheeler Lake. Incorporated way back in 1821, it’s home to two of north Alabama’s most interesting historic places — the oldest remaining bank building in Alabama and a theater known for its remarkable marquee. Each are on the edge of their own distinct historic commercial areas. Each of those areas has the look and feel of a separate historic downtown; they were actually separate towns from 1887 to 1927.
The 190-year-old State Bank Building is found at the northern edge of Old Decatur. About seven blocks to the south, the iconic Princess Theatre is found on the north side of the other, larger New Decatur downtown.
Both downtowns are typical post Civil War boom-era commercial strips with a good number of interesting 2-story buildings built between the late 1880s and the 1930s.
The Old Decatur historic district
Constructed in 1832, that State Bank Building was listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Adjacent to the bank building, the Bank Street Historic District was listed in 1980. In 1985, the district was extended, becoming the much larger Bank Street and Old Decatur Historic District.
Here’s a small sample of the historic buildings found along fantastic Bank Street:
Pictured, from top left:
- The south side of the Bank Street 800 block with the c. 1880s Owl Drug Store building (824-826 Bank Street) in the foreground.
- The c. 1888 3-story Scott Block that anchors the 700 block on the south side of the street. Since it was remodeled sometime in the mid-20th century, it wasn’t considered, at the time the district was listed, to contribute to the historic significance of the district.
- The c. 1907 Frazier Building at 702-704 Bank Street.
- The c. 1927 3-story Tennessee Valley Bank building (624 Bank Street) is now home to the Morgan County Archives.
- The Clopton’s Ice Creamery and Dairy building at 518 Bank Street. It home to a family-owned dairy business from 1900 to 1978.
At the time it was listed with the National Register, the Bank Street and Old Decatur Historic District included most of the commercial buildings on Bank Street along with a large number of old homes within walking distance to the south. A total of 220 properties were considered to be contributing properties at the time, and another 68 were considered to contribute if they were restored to their original appearance.
The large residential portion includes a wide variety of interesting houses. Most have been well preserved or restored, and parts of the tree-filled neighborhoods would remind those familiar with Huntsville’s historic districts of the Old Town Historic District in that city. The district also includes a riverside park, a c. 1905 library, a 1920s school building, and some 90- to 120-year-old church buildings.
Most of the historic buildings along present day Bank Street are in good condition and once again occupied. A variety of businesses can be found there including professional services, boutiques, antique shops and art galleries. There are a pair of restaurants, too.
If you plan to tour the district, be sure to include the c. 1905 Southern Railway Depot (Old Decatur Depot). Recently restored, it now serves as the city’s newest museum. The building was individually listed with the National Register in 1980.
The c. 1904 Carnegie Library (205 Church Street) is also in the district. It’s now home to the Carnegie Visual Art Center.
The New Decatur-Albany Historic District
The property at 112 2nd Avenue N.E. where the iconic Princess Theatre is found started out in 1887 as a hotel’s livery stable. It became a silent film and vaudeville playhouse by the early 1920s, and what you see today is the result of 2000-2001-era renovations that returned the building to its early-1940s appearance.
The theatre is one of the 45-plus properties that were listed with the National Register in 1995 as the New Decatur-Albany Historic District. To the left of the theatre in the picture above, you see the c. 1910 building at 110 2nd Avenue N.E. Let’s take a look at some other streetscapes from the district:
Pictured, from top left:
- The c. 1915 Steed Furniture building at 110-112 Moulton Street E.
- A scene from the 200 block of 2nd Avenue S.E. with the c. 1900 building at 201 2nd in the foreground.
- Looking at the 100 block of 2nd Avenue N.E. from underneath the marquee at the Princess.
Like the Bank Street commercial area, most of the historic buildings in this district are currently occupied by a variety of small businesses. There are also a couple of nice greenspaces. Some newer buildings fill what had been empty lots between historic buildings. There are a few dining establishments, or bar and grills, including two popular chain restaurants.
The Alabama Center for the Arts and the Cook Museum of Natural Science are just a few yards from the north side of the district.
Know before you go
Here’s more information designed to help you get in the mood for a visit to the city.
Old Decatur was the original town incorporated in the 1820s. New Decatur was a second town established during an economic boom of the late 1880s. The later was renamed Albany in 1916. The two towns were combined in 1927 at a time when their borders had become hard to distinguish, old tensions had faded, and the need to work together to build a bridge across the river had peaked.
One year, 1887, New Decatur’s population grew from 1,200 to 5,000. The combined city has a population of about 58,000 today.
During the Civil War, the Union Army destroyed most of Old Decatur including a vital railroad bridge that crossed the Tennessee River. Only four structures of Old Decatur were spared — the State Bank Building and three houses.
Over 40 cities and towns across America are named Decaturin honor of naval officer and war hero Stephen Decatur.
Built in the 1830s, the first railroad established west of the Appalachian Mountains spanned the 45-mile stretch from Decatur to Tuscumbia in northwest Alabama.
The Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge on the east and south side of Decatur is a winter home to the endangered whooping crane and many other migratory birds. NOTE: The refuge’s welcome center and some of it’s observation decks and trails are closed until Nov. 2022 for renovations.
Point Mallard Park features a fabulous golf course, an ice-skating complex, a campground and a water park complete with a wave pool. The Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic is held each year at the sprawling park on Memorial Day weekend.
Decatur makes a fine basecamp choice for a history- or museum-themed road trip that may combine visiting the Shoals to the west, Athens to the north, Cullman to the south, and the Huntsville/Madison areas to the east. Two Hilton hotels are within a half mile of the Old Decatur Historic District.
Top celebrities born in Decatur include movie and television star Lucas Black, long-time San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers, television personality and model Cynthia Bailey (The Real Housewives of Atlanta) and astronaut Mae Jemison, who became the first African-American woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Other than the two districts featured above, Decatur has two other historic districts listed with the National Register of Historic Places. Here’s a complete list of districts:
- Bank Street and Old Decatur Historic District
- East Old Town Historic District
- New Decatur-Albany Historic District listed in 1995, later extended to include the c.1898 Decatur Light, Power and Fuel Company
- New Decatur-Albany Residential Historic District
- West Old Town Historic District
The bank building and depot, plus four residential properties are individual listed in the National Register:
- Col. Francis Dancy House
- Cotaco Opera House
- Rhea-McEntire House
- State Bank Building
- Southern Railroad Depot
Use the search tool on the National Register website to learn more about the listings.
Huntsville historic places part 1
Exploring Cullman: One of north Alabama’s most unique Southern outings