Huntsville says farewell to an old friend in leaving heroic City Hall building

single-meta-cal May 13, 2024

The City of Huntsville’s Administration Building will soon be vacated, demolished and perhaps, forgotten. Its day has passed as its celebrated replacement towers over it across Fountain Circle.

But before it goes, this generational building – more commonly known as City Hall – needs its celebration, too. The slender, slate gray building just off the downtown square is a hero in the Huntsville story even as it’s tired, worn and, after all these years, still leaks.

Consider the building not only a hero but a good friend as well, a constant amid the everchanging Huntsville landscape long defined by dynamic growth into eventually Alabama’s largest city and America’s best place to live.

“It’s been a good building,” Mayor Tommy Battle said. “But its time has passed, I guess we’d have to say. It was a great building. I hate to leave it. It’s all the City Hall I’ve ever known.”

black & white photo of tall building with smaller buildings part of same complex

Huntsville’s City Hall in 1965, the year that it opened. In the center is the fire station and, on the right, a police department and jail that no longer exist. (Huntsville-Madison County Public Library)

The marvel of City Hall

Call it a hero. Call it an old friend. Both are appropriate for what’s been a resilient, yet beleaguered, building since it opened in 1965 – four years before men first walked on the moon. In a city teeming with engineering advances, maintaining City Hall for almost 60 years has been, itself, a marvel of its own.

The leaks began almost immediately, continuing to the point that former Mayor Glenn Hearn in 1967 became so frustrated that he wanted to file a lawsuit against the building contractors.

The leaks continued and the problems multiplied so that, in 1986, employees vacated the building for two years of extensive repairs and improvements. The problems never fully dissipated but the work for Huntsville’s citizens never relented. City services expanded and the population expanded even faster. In 1960, five years before the City Hall opened, Huntsville’s population was 72,365 and it’s more than tripled since.

Along the way, Huntsville blossomed into a destination city featuring cutting edge research at Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center. Appropriately nicknamed the Rocket City, Huntsville also evolved into an industrial hub anchored by Toyota Motor Manufacturing and, later, Mazda Toyota Manufacturing.

Huntsville built a resilient economic base and experienced prosperity that far outpaced other cities across Alabama.

It’s what was envisioned when City Hall was built, its style so different from traditional municipal buildings with its sleek design embracing its young heritage as a space and missile defense stronghold. As Katherine Stamps, City Preservation Planner, described it, the City Hall design “fit the narrative for the city.”

black and white aerial photo of city with tall building on the left, a road in the bottom center and a lake in the center with mountains in the background

In a 1973 photo, Huntsville’s City Hall overlooks an early version of Big Spring Park and Spragins Street is shown in the lower center through what’s now Big Spring Park East. The under-construction Von Braun Center is seen in the upper center. (Huntsville-Madison County Public Library)

Indeed, it stood alone in the city landscape, its marble-sided exterior looking different from other buildings and seemingly charting a path into a sort of new frontier that eventually stretched to the moon and beyond.

“It was taking that step to be modern,” Stamps said.

Still, it was steeped in practicality as well. A downtown fire station was built into the basement and a police department with jail was part of the municipal complex linked by a public plaza.

For the City Hall, though, the journey from 1965 to 2024 was hardly a linear path.

The plaza began to sink to the point where it had to be closed. The perimeter of the building had to be cordoned off because marble slabs were falling to the ground when fasteners weakened. At one time, the outside of the building was roped off and signs posted that said “Keep Out” – hardly the welcoming message for any City Hall.

On the interior, workspace became an issue, too. City services expanded and some employees found themselves working at desks in hallways. By the early 1980s, Mayor Joe Davis said, “We’ve run out of space up here.”

Construction of a four-story tower on the north side of the building in the mid-1980s became the temporary solution to create more room for employees.

black and white photo of tall building with trees around it

Huntsville’s City Hall pictured in 1971 before a four-floor tower was added on the right side to accommodate growth. The police department can be seen on the left side. (Huntsville-Madison County Public Library)

A witness to history

As the years wore on, two certainties emerged about Huntsville’s City Hall building: Its problems were never fully solved, and it persevered as an old friend will do.

In 1986, prior to the two-year renovation, The Huntsville Times asked, “Is City Hall an eight-story lemon?” In addition to the leaks, falling slabs of marble and space inefficiencies, there were even concerns that the building swayed beyond its design.

The leaks and the failing marble exterior led to cracks on the interior of the building. The Times reported that some City employees would use potted plants or large picture frames to mask unsightly damage on walls.

“Plaster has been stripped to find the source of leaks,” The Times reported in another pre-renovation story. “In some offices, it had been spontaneously falling off on its own. Even the offices of Mayor Joe Davis and his staff, in which meetings with out-of-town dignitaries and officials are frequently held, have walls stripped to the concrete blocks.”

Protective roof-covered sidewalks alongside the building soon became a permanent feature despite repeated efforts to ensure the marble siding didn’t fall on unsuspecting passersby.

Almost 60 years later, though, City Hall has done its job and the sprawling city that surrounds it has become one of the nation’s best.

That seems kind of heroic, seems like a trait of an old friend.

“There were a lot of historic things that were done in this building,” Mayor Battle said. “And maybe that’s why you’re a little bit sad to leave it because of the historic things that were done between 1965 and 2024 that happened in the city of Huntsville. Somewhere in this building, it was part of that process. So every milestone that we reached during that time, every milestone was shaped and put together somewhere in this building.”

So to City Hall, 308 Fountain Circle, we say farewell and thank you. Job well done.

A shot of the old Huntsville City Hall as seen from the new City Hall.