The rich patina of age on the towering red brick walls. The steel-framed ground-to-ceiling windows, with awning windows at the top that reach out to lure ventilation. The thick floorboards that still feel the footprints of the ghosts of a long-passed manufacturing age.
There are thousands of these buildings across the country, well past their use-by dates, sitting empty and dying their slow deaths.
Then again, this particular building is very much alive. What goes on under the watch of that iconic water tower that stands guard above Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, makes it the largest privately owned arts facility in the U.S.
“There’s really no other place like this,” says Marcia Freeland, the Lowe Mill executive director.
The are some 144 working studios in the massive facility that was essentially saved from the wrecking ball in 2001 by the generosity and imagination of the Hudson family, evolving into what Freeland calls “an incubator for creative minds.”
Talk & Tour
In conjunction with the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission, Lowe Mill will host a “talk and tour” event on Friday, March 24 at 6 p.m., led by Freeland and assisted by Jessica White, City of Huntsville Preservation Consultant.
“The event will highlight the use of Lowe Mill as an adaptively re-used space and how it came to be,” White says. It’s the ideal for “keeping what we have and a way to repurpose it so we’re maintaining the historic space, but doing it in such a way that has value to the folks that visit it.”
Huntsville, as White notes, “has been on the cutting edge of adaptively using old spaces.” And Lowe Mill has been the poster child for that initiative.
Credit Jim Hudson, co-founder of HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, for taking action to save the 171,000-square foot complex when he purchased the empty building.
“He bought it to create something for the entire community,” Freeland says.
“The Hudsons are incredible to work for,” she continues. “They give you the keys to the kingdom, if you will, and they let you run with it. That is so wonderful but so terrifying at the same time. I feel like I have a responsibility to the Hudsons, the employees, the artists and the city of Huntsville.”
By now, most citizens are aware of Lowe Mill’s emergence as an arts center. There’s so much art, history becomes an elective subject.
The “talk and tour” will bring more of that history to light, and it’s what fascinates White. Preserving the history of Lowe Mill is as important as the creativity.
A history lesson
Lowe Mill was opened in 1901 by Arthur H. Lowe of Fitchburg, Mass., joining several similar mills in the robust production of textile, taking advantage of the abundance of cotton in north Alabama.
The Great Depression took its toll and Lowe Mill underwent some ownership changes. Finally, by 1937, it stopped production. It remained as a cotton warehouse until 1945 when General Shoe Company took over. At its heyday, more than 800 workers were employed by the company and it produced most of the boots made for soldiers during the Vietnam War.
In 1978, shoe manufacturing ceased and the site became a warehouse for commercial and residential heating systems for Martin Industries. Developer Gene McLain bought the property in 1999, then sold it to Hudson two years later.
“It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this cool, neat artist incubator,” White says. “It was a work space.”
She says she tries to imagine what it was like in the days when it was a hot, crowded, noisy cotton mill, or in its next incarnation as the shoe factory. That’s been made easier for her by something Freeland once pointed out.
If you go on the “talk and tour,” or simply visit Lowe Mill to browse and soak up the atmosphere, look down at the floor. You’ll see “Fire Lane” written in various places, and lanes painted on the floor that helped direct workers and their carts.
Look closer. See the tiny metal circles. They are eyelets for boots and shoes, pieces that escaped during production and were ground into the wood. They’re embedded there, as deep and steadfast as Lowe Mill is embedded in Huntsville’s history – and its future.