Though I’ve driven past hundreds of times, suddenly my attention was stolen by the bone-colored block letters on the brick parapet that sits like a crown atop the three-story brick building.
is written on the Railroad Station Antiques Mall at the corner of Jefferson and Monroe.
I blame Jessica White, the City of Huntsville’s Historic Preservation Consultant, and the stories I’ve written for her department’s newsletter and this CityBlog. They’ve caused me to start noticing old buildings.
When I asked Jessica about it, she offered an idea-slash-challenge: At the time of this writing, National Library Week was forthcoming, and Jessica suggested I go to the library to research the Lombardo building, write about the process, and encourage others to satisfy their own curiosity through the priceless resource that is the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library. That’s where I discovered a rotund little 5-foot-4, 210-pound butcher, one of the first airplane passengers over Huntsville and an education about brick buildings.
I was quickly reminded that of all the resources at the library, the most important are the people. The staff is the starting line for any research project. In my case, it was Thomas Hutchens, who has been my guide on similar journeys.
He retrieved a collection of issues of The Historic Huntsville Quarterly of Local Architecture and Preservation. From the winter of 1981:
“The Lombardo is a fine example of the fully developed Commercial Brick style as applied to a larger than average structure. It displays the characteristic regular, symmetrical brick façade, grouped windows, steeped parapet, and reliance on fenestration and structural materials to create its distinctive style rather than on applied ornament. While the height and width of the pilasters convey a vertical feeling, this is neutralized by the horizontal handling of the windows and the repeated horizontals of the elaborate parapet. The ground floor alteration does not obscure the original design.”
Frankly, the Lombardo Building, which first served as a wholesale grocery store, isn’t that distinctive. The architect is unknown. It’s essentially a cookie-cutter design, like other nearby Commercial Brick buildings, which the Quarterly tells us are
“constructed of brick and are fewer than five stories high. The overall proportions are low and the principal orientation is horizontal the façade tends to be flat, symmetrical and regular in design. … It is a simple, functional method of building, incorporating a minimum of ornament … The Commercial Brick buildings illustrate the mercantile style that predominated during this period for the majority of small local building projects designed by local architects.”
I was reading that as Hutchens delivered “A Mighty Fortress of Faith,” Pat Tumminello’s labor of love about the history of St. Mary of the Visitation Church that includes the stories of many of Huntsville’s Italian families. Then he handed me a sheaf of papers that included Lombardo’s U.S. Naturalization Records, his listing in the 1920 U.S. Census and his gravesite at Maple Hill.
That’s when the Lombardo building evolved from brick and windows into flesh and blood, when I was introduced to Peter Lombardo, a Sicilian immigrant, his German-born wife Hattie and their daughter Mamie.
Peter Lombardo was born June 29, 1867, in Cefalu, Sicily. He sailed to the U.S. with his parents in 1888, leaving Palermo for New Orleans on the Letimbro, a 700-passenger ship owned by Navigazione Generale Italiana; the Letimbro would be sunk in 1916 by a German U-boat.
Peter Lombardo soon moved to Huntsville from New Orleans, perhaps following the pipeline of sorts for Italian immigrants that had been inspired by John Mazza, who owned a candy and notions store here.
Lombardo married Hattie Muetze on Nov. 10, 1895 and she gave birth to Mamie the following September. Lombardo opened a grocery store at 108 Washington Street, advertising “the very best and freshest vegetables the market affords.” The business grew, and he became established as a butcher and wholesale grocer. To place an order, the phone number was 215.
His bookkeeper Carrie Cicero and Mamie were among the first people from Huntsville to fly in an airplane, taking off from a landing strip at what is now Optimist Park. They were enlisted in a promotion for Oh Henry! candy, dropping the bars from the open-cockpit of a low-flying plane.
Business was apparently booming for Lombardo. In June 1915, he was able to purchase the house at 515 West Clinton Street on three acres of land from George Ackerman for $4,000. News reports called it as “a choice bargain.” Then came his new building on “Grocery Row” on the fringe of downtown.
I found Peter Lombardo’s obituary on a reel of Huntsville Times microfilm. He died on March 7, 1943 at age 75 and was noteworthy enough to have merited page-one coverage in the next day’s paper. He was described as “one of the city’s early builders and took an active part in civic and charitable affairs.” It says he retired from the grocery business in 1935 because of ill health.
The day after my library research, I browsed through the antique mall in the Lombardo Building and I drove over to Maple Hill Cemetery. I paid my respects to somebody I finally got to meet, 74 years after his death. All because we got introduced by a building.