Historic-places enthusiasts will enjoy a visit to northwest Alabama’s largest city
Florence — population 40,200 — has some of the most historically significant sites found in the northern half of the state. In and around the center of the old downtown, historic places provide many memorable streetscapes which are best enjoyed on foot.
Florence has at least four actual museums, but you can also enjoy outdoor museum-like visits to historic places by putting on your walking shoes and heading out to the sidewalks. To help you plan a short, medium or long sidewalk tour, below I group some of the top historic sites into clusters, along with some notes to help you determine what makes each place significant.
Let’a kick it off with a cluster that features a pair of very fine old houses that now find themselves to be part of the beautiful University of North Alabama campus.
Rogers Hall, Coby Hall and the heart of UNARogers Hall (Courtview)
Two large houses that are between 168 and 180 years of age and the tree-filled Court Street and university settings make this one of the top areas in Florence for great sidewalk vistas.
North Court Street dead ends at Rogers Hall which was listed in 1974 in the National Register of Historic Places as Courtview. Built in 1854-55, the three-story Greek Revival house was built by George Washington Foster. From 1878 to 1900, Foster’s daughter Sarah and her husband lived there. Emmitt O’Neal, who was elected as Alabama’s 36th governor in 1910, owned it from 1900 to 1922.
The house was remodeled in 1922 after being purchased by Thomas M. Rogers Jr. who lived there until it was sold to the university in 1948.
Coby Hall (Simpson House, Irvine Place)
This Greek Revival style house was built by John Simpson in 1843 to replace his earlier frame house that burned. James B. Irvine bought it in 1867 and it remained in his family through the 1980s. David Brubaker bought it around 1990 and, in 2005, donated it to the university in memory of his wife, Coby Stockard Brubaker.
The view shown above is from Court Street. The Pine Street side also looks like a front yard and porch.
Seven other 19th century houses are located on Court Street between Coby Hall and the commercial downtown. Those, along with Coby Hall, are part of the Sannoner Historic District, which was listed with the National Register in 1976.
Today, UNA uses Rogers Hall and Coby Hall for administrative purposes. Rogers Hall is home to the Division of University Advancement (Alumni Relations, Donor Relations and Public Relations). Coby Hall is the Admissions Office.
The two houses are just a few dozen yards south of the heart of the UNA campus where the c. 1929 Bibb-Graves Hall and the Harrison Fountain provide one of the most beautiful landscapes in the city:Photo: UNA.edu/map
If you find yourself on this part of the campus, be sure to check out the adjacent c. 1940 President's Home and the George H. Carroll Lion Habitat:
The best place to park for a walking tour in this area is the north side of the commercial downtown area, especially while students are at UNA.
Wilson Park and neighboring structures
A W.C. Handy statue greets you at the southern corner of Wilson Park
Wilson Park was included in the original plans for the town of 1818. Named for Pres. Woodrow Wilson, it was reimagined in the early 1930s. The fountain and diagonal walkways were added at that time.
As shown in the second and third photo above, the modern library and the c. 1963 First Baptist Church fit in nicely to the vistas on the east side of the park.
The Regions Bank, which is a striking replica of the c. 1822 Forks of Cypress, and the c. 1924 United Methodist Church are located just outside the western corner of the park:
Forks of Cypress burned in 1966, but you can tour the ruins located a few miles outside of the city.
Three historically significant structures border Wilson Park to its north on Tuscaloosa Street. Pictured below, from top left, are the c. 1890 Victorian-style Southall House, the c. 1918 Georgian Revival Kennedy-Douglass House and the c. Victorian-style 1910 Wright-Douglass House:
The Southall House is still a private residence, but the other two are connected by an enclosed walkway and serve as the city’s Kennedy-Douglass Center For The Arts.
Parking for this sidewalk tour can be found on the street on three sides of the park or at the library.
North Wood Avenue
The historic streetscapes on North Wood come near to rivaling those found in north Alabama’s most-fascinating residential historic district, the Twickenham Historic District in Huntsville.
Shown, from top left: The c. 1926 Spanish Colonial-style Rogers-Rosenbaum House. The c. 1890s Victorian-style Howell House. The c. 1922 Georgia Revival-style Redd-Gerber House. The c. 1900 Victorian-style McKelvey House.
Those four are found at the southern part of N. Wood Avenue. The streetscapes get even better as you walk towards the northern end of the street. Side-by-side in the 600 block are two spectacular 2.5-story Queen Anne-style houses, the c. 1890 Reisman-Coffee-Looft House and the c. 1888 Leftwich-Dilliard-Mann House:
Also in the 600 block, the Florence Historical Board marker in front of the c. 1889 Victorian-style Wood-Frirson House tells the story of George W. Goethal:
Goethal lived at the house from 1890 to 1894 while doing engineering work on the Muscle Shoals Canal Project which made the Tennessee River more ship friendly back before the locks and dams were built. According to the marker, Goethal later helped build the Panama Canal.
At the north end of the 600 block, two more lovely 2.5-story Queen Anne-style houses are found across from the upper portion of UNA:
Those are the c. 1889 Smith House (tan house on the left) and the c. 1900 Hall-Westmoreland-Colburn House.
While at those two houses, take a walk across the street to the c. 1855 Wesleyan Hall, a castle-like building that has been a part of the UNA campus for decades:
It was individually listed in the National Register in 1974 and has an interesting history of its own.
Here are some other N. Wood Avenue streetscapes:
Shown, from top left, the c. 1905 Duncan House, the c. 1915 Ashcraft-Doster House and the c. late 1890s Rogers-Koonce House.
Thimbleton, the c. 1895 Trinity Episcopal Church and nearby houses on West Tuscaloosa Street
The four structure shown above are found at a point where two nationally registered residential historic districts meet. From top left:
The Italianate-style, c. 1830 house known as Thimbleton, on W. Tuscaloosa Street, looks amazing for a 193-year-old wooden structure.
The yellow house with the wraparound porch was built in 1890. On the Locust Street Historic District application to the National Register, it’s described as the “quintessential Victorian-period home.”
The gray house across from the church, now used as a commercial office building, appears to be 110 to 140 years old. But, it’s not included in either of the historic districts that it borders, perhaps due to the owner opting out at the time that the historic places application was submitted to the National Register.
The old part of the Episcopal church is now nearly 130 years old. Matching additions were built in the late 1960s.
Historic heart of downtown
The charming historic commercial area provides some outstanding streetscapes. With a few exceptions, the most interesting buildings were constructed during the boom years of the 1880s and are found on the 100, 200 and 300 block of N. Court Street, the 100 block of S. Court and the 100 block of E. Tennessee.
Some favorites features are shown above. Top left are the doors and window frames of the c. 1918 Gaskins Building. Top right, the second story ornamentations of the c. 1900 and c. 1880 buildings at the corner of S. Court and E. Tennessee. At bottom is the Southall Drugs Building, c. 1900, which was individually listed with the National Register in 1980.
Today, the downtown business district serves as a fine entertainment district with seven or eight restaurants and two hotels found in historic structures.
Intersection of East Mobile Street and North Seminary Street
While at the commercial district or in the Wilson Park area, take a stroll over to this intersection and check out three fascinating buildings, the c. 1940s Shoals Theater, the c. 1824 Presbyterian Church and the c. 1913 Post Office.
Pickett Place and Pope’s Tavern
Built in 1833, Pickett Place, left, now serves as a privately-owned event venue. It and the c. 1840 Pope’s Tavern, right, are found across from each other on Hermitage Drive.
Pope’s Tavern is now a museum. Both are part of the Wood Avenue Historic District and are only two blocks from both N. Court Street and Wilson Park. They are about three blocks from the downtown entertainment district. Therefore, it would be practical to combine a visit to these with any of the sidewalk tours shown above.
In regard to things to do, there are a great deal of options in the greater Shoals area. The well-maintained historic places in downtown Florence should be on most tourists’ radar, especially those who love landmarks or architecture.
The city is better now than ever when it comes to visually appealing streetscapes. And walking tours are the best way to enjoy them.
See also this article about another historic downtown in the Shoals area: Helen Keller’s birthplace is not the only must-see point-of-interest in Tuscumbia.
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