Rocketing into art, history, ghosts—and Da Vinci
Huntsville has a huge, fabulous, internationally famous elephant in its room: the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. You cannot miss the Space Center in the city; locals sometimes give directions based on the enormous Saturn I rocket visible from many points in town. Having visited both the Space Center and its near neighbor, the also-fabulous Huntsville Botanical Gardens (where the holiday display is designed by actual retired rocket scientists), I can personally attest these two attractions alone are worth the short two-hour drive into Alabama.
But there is a lot of Huntsville beyond the Space Center. And that’s what I focused on during a recent weekend visit.
Ghost walks are materializing in many cities these days, but Huntsville is fortunate to have Jacque Reeves as chatelaine for the three Huntsville Ghost Walks (Twickenham, Old Town and Downtown), the Haunted Trolley Tour, and the tour of Maple Hill Cemetery. Jacque and her docents are well versed in the spirited history of the area, and will answer such questions as, “Who are the phantom children singing a haunting tune on Walker Street?” and “Who is the angry ghost at the courthouse?” The cemetery tour can be booked as a private excursion, and Jacque knows where virtually every body is buried…literally. You can take in another Hunstville attraction at very cool vintage Harrison Brothers Hardware Store, where tickets can be purchased in advance (cash only). Extra tours have been added for expected additional paranormal hi-jinks in October. Avalon Tours. (256) 509-3940, huntsvilleghostwalk.com
The fast-growing arts scene in Huntsville reflects both its highly educated, affluent sector—and a very vigorous alt sensibility. At the lovely Huntsville Museum of Art in the center of town, a 3,000-piece permanent collection is augmented by high-quality traveling exhibits. The collection is so large, in fact, that the museum’s 14 galleries cannot display it all permanently, so some treasures are housed below decks, waiting for their turn in the sun. Of special interest are the 400-piece Sellars Collection: Art By American Women 1850-1940, which the museum displays in a series of rotating exhibits, and the spectacular Betty Grisham Collection of Buccellati Silver Animals. The museum actually has a partnership with the centuries-old Milanese silversmiths, and has acquired a world-class, unique collection of the intricately detailed sculptures. 300 Church St. South. hsvmuseum.org
If the center of town is perfect for the museum, the outskirts are perfect for Lowe Mill, the former textile mill and then shoe factory that is now, according to them, the Southeast’s largest center for the arts. The sprawling ex-mill already houses more than 100 working artists, small businesses, restaurants and live performance venues and is by itself a reason to visit Huntsville—it’s that amazing. Theatre and performance buffs should not miss whatever is going on in the Flying Monkey Arts Center (for example, the Rocket City Short Film Festival on Oct. 19). Arts and crafts collectors, pack plenty of dough. Some favorites from this recent visit: Danny Davis’s handcrafted acoustic instruments (Railroad Suite 7), hard-to-find vinyl at Vertical House Records (Railroad Room 3), leaded glass at Julie Gill (Studio 120), Connie Ulrich’s silver jewelry, especially the tongue-in-cheekily named “Road Kill” series (Studio 121) and Susie Garrett’s wonderful, inventive mixed-media sculptures (Studio 126).
Be aware that the art studios are open only Wed-Thur noon - 6 p.m., Fri. noon - 8 p.m. and Sat. noon - 6 p.m. The restaurants and Flying Monkey have additional hours. 2211 Seminole Dr. SW. (lowemill.net)
If all this ain’t enough art for ya, Friday nights are now ongoing arts and performance exhibits in the Quigley and Meridian Arts & Entertainment Districts downtown.
Huntsville is chock-full of historic fun, including the Alabama Constitution Village (a reconstruction of what the city was like in 1819), the Depot (which had a role to play in the Civil War), and Twickenham, a whole district of historic homes.
But unique to Huntsville is the 167-acre Burritt on the Mountain, founded by the eccentric, not to say flat-out mad Dr. William Henry Burritt. The thrice-married surgeon and homeopathic doctor left his estate to the city, and it’s now a regional history museum. You can tour the house, the collection of 19th-century rural cabins and structures (moved to the estate), visit farm animals and stroll nature trails overlooking the entire valley from on top of Monte Sano Mountain. Don’t forget to peek in and see the esteemed doctor’s car, now restored and in its original parking spot below the house. Prompt one of the volunteers for tales of Dr. Burritt…you won’t be sorry. The 3rd Annual International Heritage Festival is Oct. 19. 3101 Burritt Dr. SE. burrittonthemountain.com
Back to Infinity
As you might expect, Huntsville is home to a bustling science fiction and fantasy convention. This year’s Con*Stellation 32: Columba takes place Oct. 11-13 with mistress of ceremonies Stephanie Osborn, who besides being a novelist is—you guessed it—a retired space scientist. con-stellation.org
And to complete our orbit, we return to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which beginning Nov. 1, is hosting an exhibit in honor of that wacky, brilliant extraterrestrial Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.
Says the Space Center: “ ‘Da Vinci: The Genius’ ” brings to life Leonardo da Vinci as an inventor, artist, scientist, anatomist, engineer, architect, sculptor and philosopher. This amazing exhibition provides fascinating insight into not only the mind of a genius, but the fundamental scientific and artistic principles that he discovered.” 1 Tranquility Base. rocketcenter.com
Autumn is seriously happening in Huntsville.
IF YOU GO
Our best advice: Contact the nice folks at Huntsville Convention & Visitors Bureau for advice on where to stay, where to eat and for more information on any of the places and people mentioned above.
500 Church St. NW, Suite 1.
On this trip, I stayed at the Homewood Suites by Hilton—Village of Providence. Its spacious accommodations are perfect for families and those who enjoy having a kitchen en suite.
15 Town Center Dr.
Right next to the Homewood Suites is one of the city’s favorite restaurants, Grille 29, which boasts a friendly staff, swell house cocktails and an excellent menu. You can eat al fresco if weather permits.
445 Providence Main St. NW, #101.
Before or after visiting the Huntsville Museum of Art (or while downtown during the day for any other reason), stop into Pane e Vino, located on the museum’s lower level. Tasty pizza, pasta, panini, salads and a nicely selected wine list. Try the roasted zucchini caprese panini…yum!
300 Church St. SW.