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North Side Square

The sites in the heart of the city that every history themed Huntsville itinerary should include  

Fans of historic landmarks will want to hit the sidewalks of downtown Huntsville to enjoy these 100- to 200-year-old sites.

Nicknamed the Rocket City, Huntsville is known for it’s role in the NASA space program, it’s large army base and it’s high-tech research and manufacturing. But, most people aren’t aware of this old city’s incredible collection of historic places.

If you live in the South, but can’t make it to Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans or St. Augustine to enjoy their spectacular historic places as often as you would like, Huntsville may be the next best thing. It became the first incorporated town in the Alabama Territory over 210 years ago, and a few places from those days are still around. There are also dozens of houses and other structures over 120-years old. One residential historic district contains a large number of 175-200 year-old houses.

Some of the South’s most beautiful historic streetscapes are found within walking distance of the city’s center. If you fancy that sort of thing, make sure these sites are part of your travel plans the next time you visit Huntsville.

The Memphis and Charleston Railroad Depot is now known as the Huntsville Depot Museum

Listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, this pre-Civil War remnant is the oldest surviving railway terminal in Alabama. Built to serve as the headquarters for the eastern division of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company, the grounds include a freight depot, an engine house, a machine shop, and two car shops that were contructed between 1856 and 1859. The headquarters and passenger station was completed in 1860. Early in the Battle Between the States, Union troops successfully captured the depot and, along with it, one of the most strategic railway routes of the war. Now, the depot is one of three properties operated by the city’s EarlyWorks Family of Museums.

Colorful, beautiful and teeming with history: The Huntsville public square is a great destination on it’s own

If this public square was the only historic place in the downtown area, a trip to the city would be worthwhile. The lovely streetscapes provide a wonderful setting, and a great deal of must-see sites are within walking distance. There are seven separate National Register of Historic Places listings to enjoy at the public square:

Big Spring

Buildings at 104-128 South Side Square

Donegan Block

First National Bank

May and Cooney Dry Goods Company

Milligan Block

Rand Building

Schiffman Building

First National Bank and the Big Spring on West Side Square. On the courthouse’s west side you’ll find c. 1835 Greek Revival bank building and the upper entrance to the Big Spring Park. There’s a lot of history surrounding the spring and the land the bank sits on. In 1805, John Hunt the man Huntsville is named after was led to the water source, and built a log cabin near where the bank building sits.

The large natural spring produces an average of 20 millions gallons of water per day. You will need to be able to navigate a good number of brick stairs to get from the bank building to the park below, or plan to view the spring from above:

Buildings at 104-128 South Side Square. The National Register listing includes 13 of the 15 connected buildings on the public square that face the courthouse from the south. Although they have been remodeled once or twice during the past 150 years or so, the buildings at 108 and 110 South Side Square date back to 1835-40. Most the others were totally rebuilt between 1883 and 1917 although the old foundations remain underneath a good number of them.

Pictured, from top left: 128 and 124 South Side Square, 106-110 Southside Square, looking east from the front of 110 South Side Square, looking west from 106, and a look at the modern Madison County Courthouse from the corner of South Side Square and Franklin Street.

Today, South Side Square is a colorful block with the Constitution Hall Park at its rear. Most of the storefronts are currently occupied by law firms. But the block also contains Harrison Brothers Hardware which is operated by the Historic Huntsville Foundation. According to its website, the store retains its original 1897 appearance. All the original counters, display shelves, wood floors and fixtures remain intact. Sales are even rung up on a 1907 National Cash Register.

North Side Square. Among the buildings that face the courthouse from the north, you will find the big building at 105 to 109 North Side Square known as the Donegan Block (c. 1870). See the first photo below. At 113 North Side Square is the c. 1883 Rand Building. It’s the building that is painted green in the center of the second photo below.

North Side Square and South Side Square would be considered part of the downtown entertainment district since several restaurants, pubs and taverns are found in some of their historic buildings. The entertainment district continues on the streets adjacent to North Side Square.

Washington Street and Clinton Avenue scenes

East Side Square. contains three amazing buildings that are each listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places. The Milligan Block sits handsomely at the corner of Randolph Avenue. Next door, the May & Cooney Dry Goods Company building stands out with it's three stories, glazed terra cotta facing and amazing bottom-floor windows. When you look at the eye-catching Schiffman Building, which sits at the opposite corner of East Side Square, you see the result of an 1895 Romanesque Revival style remodeling project. Only one-third remains of what was —  before the extensive update —  a large c. 1835-61 three-story, three-bay brick building. The other two bays were torn down in the early 1970s. Famed early 20th-century actress Tallulah Bankhead was born on the second floor of the Schiffman Building.

Photo 1: Milligan Block (left) and May and Cooney building; Photo 2: May and Cooney Dry Goods Co. building (center); Photo 3: Three-story Schiffman Building; Photo 5. East Side Square as it appeared 130 years ago in a picture from Alabama Mosaic (Huntsville Madison County Public Library, Monroe Collection)

Alabama Constitution Hall Park & Museum found at the site of Alabama’s birthplace 

Only 160 feet from the public square, the buildings in the Alabama Constitution Hall Park are not actually the 200-year-old buildings that they appear to be. But, they do represent what is a remarkable replica of what the village probably looked like when the state constitution was prepared there after the U.S. Congress approved Alabama’s statehood. In the early 1980s, the city built a reproduction of the buildings in and around the spot where Alabama’s 1819 constitutional convention took place. When it opened in 1982 it was called Museum Village at Constitution Hall Park. The living history museum is now known as Alabama Constitution Hall Park & Museum and is another property operated by EarlyWorks Family of Museums

Photo 1: Replica of cabinet maker’s shop/Constitution Hall; Photo 2: Park & Museum office and gift shop; Photo 3: Carriage House replica; Photo 4: Replicas of Boardman Law Office, newspaper print shop, library and sheriff Neal home; Photo 5: Rear of Boardman Building print shop

There are 16 buildings in the park complex. The replica of the cabinet maker’s shop where the constitution was signed is perhaps the most interesting one. The likenesses of the Boardman Building and the Sheriff Neal residence are quite interesting as well. The park and museum underwent major improvements leading up to events related to the Alabama bicentennial celebration of 2019. A grand re-opening held at Alabama Constitution Hall Park & Museum on June 1, 2019 included a reenactment of President James Monroe’s June 1819 surprise visit to Huntsville. The actor portraying the president arrived on horseback.

Many other historic places are near the center of the city

Museums, the lake at Big Spring Park and two of north Alabama’s best mostly residential historic districts are all within walking distance of the public square. Over 20 properties that are listed individually in the National Register are within three blocks of the courthouse. Four amazing 19th-century churches are also close by.

Like the streetscapes on this page? For more, check out Summertime in beautiful historic downtown Huntsville.

See also, Huntsville historic places: Part 2 — Twickenham Historic District

Top visitor resources

Learn more about the historical places in Huntsville: