The top 25 downtowns in North Alabama for historic-places enthusiasts

Not every historic downtown is created equal. Some have stood the test of time better than others. Some are more interesting than others. The old downtowns featured below have the most to offer historic-places enthusiasts in the upper part of Alabama.

Over 50 historic downtowns are found in north Alabama. If you include the small downtowns within the Birmingham metro area and those near the same latitude, the number is closer to 60. For this article, I narrow the coverage area to the part of Alabama north of Birmingham. The rankings are based on personal opinion only.

 

To rank historic downtowns, I consider things like visual appeal of streetscapes, nostalgic charm and how well an old main street or public square has been preserved or restored. Finding historic residential areas within walking distance is a big factor. Scale is also important. Cities with larger numbers of historic structures within a compact radius have a natural advantage. Having older places, such as pre-Civil War business buildings, churches and houses, which typically feature more interesting design elements is also an advantage.

But, ultimately, these personal rankings come down to the overall fun factor — how much a historic-places enthusiast can enjoy just walking around and taking in the sights.

Most of the historic downtowns in this part of the country experienced a building boom in the 1880s and 1890s. In many cases, the most interesting buildings in a downtown were built during that period. 

Most of them have historic downtown commercial districts that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

First let’s take a look at the top 10.


1. Downtown Huntsville

Downtown Huntsville tops the list of north Alabama historic downtowns thanks to its big Public Square, its large number of pre-Civil War structures, its beautiful 19th-century churches and the two incredible, mostly-residential historic districts within walking distance.

Must-see places include the c. 1835 First National Bank building and the Big Spring Park entrance on West Side Square, the group of buildings from 104 to 128 South Side Square, the North Side Square Italianates (105 to 113 Northside Square), and East Side Square’s Milligan Block, May and Cooney Building and Schiffman Building.

A walk along the Lincoln Street, Williams Avenue and Franklin Street portion of the Twickenham Historic District — where a large concentration of 170- to 210-year old house are found — is also a must. Great historic downtown commercial streetscapes are also plentiful to the north of the public square on Washington, Jefferson and Clinton Streets.

In addition, having the Constitution Hall Park, the EarlyWorks Children’s Museum, the Huntsville Museum of Art and the Big Spring Park lake and historic spring site all with walking distance is a big bonus. The Depot Museum is less than a half mile from the courthouse. Those give Huntsville a clear edge over the other downtowns in the top 5.

See my articles featuring downtown Huntsville:

Huntsville historic places part 1

Huntsville historic places part 2: Twickenham Historic District

Summertime in beautiful historic downtown Huntsville


2. Downtown Athens

Only 28 miles west of the heart of old Huntsville, the Athens historic downtown also has a big courthouse square and some grand pre-Civil War houses within walking distance. The historic buildings of Athens State University are also nearby.

The Athens Courthouse Square Commercial Historic District includes mostly buildings built between the late 1880s and the early 1940s. A well-preserved c. 1836 church building that was remodeled in 1900, and the gothic 1895 Presbyterian Church are found on the square. Of course, the c. 1919 Limestone County Courthouse is a primary focal point of the downtown.

What puts Athens near the top of the rankings are the dozen houses that are over 160 years old that are found within a few blocks of the courthouse. A pair of them are approaching 200 years of age. There are more than 100 other houses that are over 110 years old within two large residential historic districts that are adjacent to the square.


3. Downtown Florence

Bank, courthouse, 1824 Presbyterian Church,

entertainment scene; college town

c. 1948 Shoals Theatre, Wilson Park; Kennedy Douglas Center for The Arts (three historic houses), Pope's Tavern Museum,

riverfront McFarland Park; Frank Lloyd Wright's Rosenbaum House; UNA

Gothic Revival building and mansion at UNA

Forks of Cypress

1. Huntsville
2. Athens
3. Florence
4. Anniston
5. Tuscumbia
6. Cullman
7. Gadsden
8. Guntersville
9. Decatur
10. Sheffield
11. Jasper
12. Springville
13. Scottsboro
14. Oxford
15. Fort Payne
16. Moulton
17. Ashville
18. Boaz
19. Hartselle
20. Attalla
21. Haleyville
22. Piedmont
23. Stevenson
24. Collinsville
25. Jacksonville

Itineraries

historic downtown’s 

How many could be

Albertville

Two buildings in downtown Albertville, the c. 1892 railroad depot (and the c. 1932 post office, are listed with the National Register. No other structures or districts are presently listed. The East Main Street Historic District, two churches and the high school are listed with the Alabama Register of Landmarks & Heritage.

A boom occurred in the 1890s, but fires in 1905 and a tornado in 1908 devastated the heart of the town. Only the depot remains from that era. So, most of the buildings you see in the historic downtown were built between 1908 and the 1930s.

Arab

The Main Street commercial strip features a colorful mixture of small 1920s-1930s-era buildings. The most interesting features are a mural and greenspace at the corner or Main and 1st and the rustic flower shop at the corner of Main and Cullman Road.

No buildings or districts in the city are listed with the National Register. The c. 1890 Hotel Thompson is listed in the Alabama Register of Landmarks & Heritage, but it burned in 1989.

Ardmore

A small, historic downtown with what appears to be stuctures from the 1920s and 1930s, along with some newer buildings along Ardmore Avenue (Old U.S. 31). About eight connected historic buildings sit a few yards away in the sister town of Ardmore, TN.

Ashville

The small downtown features an old courthouse surround by small historic commercial buildings on two sides. Five interesting 19th-century houses are within walking distance. The five houses, along with two others that are further from the downtown, and the Ashville Historic District, are listed with the National Register.

See the article, Downtown Ashville: More than a fare share of stately historic places.

Attalla

The Attalla Downtown Historic District was listed with the National Register in 2013. The c. 1932 post office is also listed. See the article, A visit to the Attalla Downtown Historic District.

Athens

The 85-building Athens Courthouse Square Commercial Historic District was listed with the National Register in 1997. Most of the buildings are circa late 1880s to 1920s. 

What makes this downtown a top choice for historic-places enthusiasts are the significant residential and college places within walking distance of the courthouse square including the Athens State College Historic District, the c. 1830s Gov. George S. Houston Home, the George Houston Historic District and the Robert Beaty Historic District.

Pictured, from top left, the c. 1901 Sanders-Gish House, the c. 1860 Westmoreland-Hatchett House, the college’s c. 1912 Brown Hall, the c. 1826 Beaty-Mason House, the c.1830 Gov. George S. Houston Home and the c. 1836 Murrah-Gilbert-Pryor house (remodeled in 1896).

Just south of the Robert Beaty Historic District, or about six blocks south of the courthouse square, the c. 1840s Donnell Home sits in the middle of the elementary school campus.

Boaz

The c. 1917 Julia Street Memorial United Methodist Church (shown above), four buildings at the junior college and two old houses are listed with the National Register. An additional church is listed with the Alabama Register of Landmarks & Heritage. With a good number of early 20th century commercial buildings, the historic downtown district should be eligible for listing.

Bridgeport

The Bridgeport Historic District was listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Commercial, residential and church structures are part of the district, along with the great railroad depot and some old bridges. Within a half mile of the downtown, Battery Hill is home to an intersting set of large Victorian-era houses.

Carbon Hill

Centre

Cherokee

Collinsville

The Collinsville Historic District was listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

Courtland

Crossville

Double Springs

Elkmont

Falkville

Fayette

bridges — which

Florence

Downtown Florence Historic District, listed in 1995, boundary increase in 2001; Downtown Florence Historic District is bounded on three sides by existing historic residential districts that have been placed on the National Register: Sannoner Historic District (1/1/76): Wilson Park Complex (1/25/79): Wood Avenue Historic District (10/10/78, 2/16/96, and 7/3/97); Walnut Street Historic District (12/12/76, 3/4/93, and 2/16/96); College Place Historic District (2/17/95); and Seminary-0'Neal Historic District (2/17/95). The Tennessee River is about one mile south of the Downtown Florence Historic District.

30. Hamilton

Hanceville

Hartselle

covered sidewalks like a 1,000 foot long porch. unique

52 of the buildings that make up the nationally listed Hartselle Downtown Commercial Historic District were built between 1910 and 1920. Listed in 1999. 62 contributing; railroad depots -- passenger and freight side by side on railroad street. antiques

Heflin

Hollywood

Lincoln

Madison

Moulton

Moulton Courthouse Square Historic District

Muscle Shoals

New Hope

Oneonta

Pell City

Phil Campbell

Piedmont

Pinson

Red Bay

27. Russellville

Stevenson

Sulligent

Talladega

Tarrant City

Trussville

 

Valley Head

Winfield

Woodville

Almost: Arab, Cedar Bluff, Fyffe, Blountsville

Gurley

Henagar

Mentone

Rainsville

Somerville

Town Creek