Photo courtesy of Alabama A&M University
The story of Alabama A&M can be told from structures all across campus, from the stately brick buildings from the 1900s to the stone shell of what used to be the school’s football stadium.
However, as with any college, there is the need to modernize, to attract and serve students interested in 21st Century life, endangering a variety of aging buildings.
The City of Huntsville’s Historic Preservation Commission is working with Alabama A&M to not only achieve its future goals but to maintain its past. As Black History Month is celebrated in February, a survey and data collection is taking place to evaluate and document conditions of existing buildings, with an ultimate goal of receiving grant funding for a Heritage Development Plan.
“The purpose is to identify important historic resources, identify the state of those buildings, what needs to be done to repair them, to use them, to sustain long term,” says Jessica White, historic preservation consultant to the Commission. “(The plan) would look for funding resources so they can fuel preservation or redevelopment work in those historic structures.”
Says Joseph Lee, secretary of the Normal Historic District Preservation Association. “Having the Historic Preservation Commission as an ally is extremely important to us.”
Alabama A&M is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a locally designated historic district. A&M boasts some 46 sites – buildings, farms, cemeteries, etc. – that qualify as designated resources. But a master plan listed 17 buildings for potential demolition, which would likely cost A&M its national listing.
“It’s one of those local gems that has so much rich history there and people just don’t know about it.”
So, says White, “We had discussions to preserve rather than to demolish.”
“It’s important to do this because the young people of today and most of the citizens of Huntsville know little about the history of Alabama A&M University,” Lee says. “It’s important to preserve the heritage of the campus but it’s also important to do it because of the significance of the events and things that occurred over the 140-year history of the school.”
The plan focuses on a total of 12 structures, including Hillcrest, the president’s home, and the Wilson Building, which houses the State Black Archives Research Center and Museum.
“As a preservationist, you cannot preserve something for preservation’s sake. You pour a lot of money in a building and it’ll go to ruin,” White says. “You have to make it relevant. You have to make it functional and sustainable for the people that are going to use the space. There’s nothing out there that says you cannot reuse the shells of those buildings for modern purposes. You can make them still be cutting edge.”
She notes that the University of Alabama and Auburn University – who join Alabama A&M as the state’s only three land-grant colleges – have “several historic buildings they use for modern purposes. The potential is there.”
Alabama A&M has been in existence since 1875 and has been on its current site since 1890. As Lee says, “the University has provided the intellectual capital from the African-American community for Huntsville and Madison County for years.”
“It’s one of those local gems that has so much rich history there and people just don’t know about it,” White says.
The campus was laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead Sr., of New York City, the same person who designed Manhattan’s Central Park.
The school was founded by William Hooper Councill on a site in downtown Huntsville, where the Von Braun Center now sits. Councill had been sold into slavery at age 5 at a spot on The Hill. After his emancipation, he returned to Huntsville to start the college, then relocated it on the very spot where he was sold.
Alabama A&M has the first African-American infirmary in the county and is the site of the first African-American primary school, both in buildings that are still standing.
“When you look up on The Hill, you see a continuity of the buildings. You see the red brick, you see the white limestone or white lentels, you see the four pilasters on most of the buildings. They’re built in a neo-Classical greek revival style. They did that to create a solid permanence on The Hill,” White says. “There are so many amazing buildings and sites on that campus.”
Through Alabama A&M’s partnership with the City of Huntsville’s Historic Preservation Commission, those buildings and sites can long be protected and cherished.