Huntsville, Ala., offers space center, history and art museums, botanical garden

Water lilies fill the aquatic garden at the Huntsville Botanical Garden, a 120-acre contrast to the nearby space center.
Water lilies fill the aquatic garden at the Huntsville Botanical Garden, a 120-acre contrast to the nearby space center. (Becky Krystal/The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Third in a month-long series spotlighting the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Distinctive Destinations for 2010.

You might first notice the towering Saturn V rocket during the descent into Huntsville International Airport. The landmark rises above the horizon in much the same way as the space and defense industries dominate the reputation of this northern Alabama city. The rocket's home is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, a major tourist draw and one of the reasons the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Huntsville one of its 2010 Dozen Distinctive Destinations.

But even though it's nicknamed the Rocket City, both the National Trust and I realized that Huntsville and the surrounding area (population about 400,000) is full of earthbound attractions of the non-NASA variety.

Huntsville's history stretches back to far before the arrival of the space industry in the 1950s. A Revolutionary War veteran named John Hunt settled there in 1805 for the proximity to a spring, and within a matter of decades, the town had flourished enough for its residents to build an impressive array of mansions that you can ogle while taking a pleasant drive through the city's three historic districts.

Burritt on the Mountain, a regional history museum with a lofty perch overlooking the city, is one grand home worth visiting. Rewind: Yes, there are mountains in Alabama.

William Henry Burritt, a homeopathic physician, built a mansion with a beautifully appointed interior on 167 acres in the late 1930s atop Monte Sano ("Mountain of Health"). He asked that it become a museum after his death, and today the estate is home to about a dozen old buildings moved to the site from different parts of Alabama. There are also farm animals and a cheerful museum store.

Perhaps Burritt's greatest asset is its setting. Picnic tables have been strategically placed around the grounds. I parked myself at one to take in the view and the heavily perfumed air synonymous with "South."

"They're really surprised how beautiful it is," Lynette Fairlamb, my genial guide at the mansion, said of people visiting Burritt and this corner of Alabama.

I was ready to be surprised some more.

After tossing my bags in my hotel room, I made a beeline for downtown Huntsville, which also boasts some natural beauty, not to mention a vast collection of antebellum houses. Gleaming office buildings, a large entertainment venue and the Huntsville Museum of Art are situated around water that's part of Big Spring Park. (The next day I discovered an even more scenic pocket of the park a few blocks away, with cascading water and a steep rock wall.)

Had it not been so hot, I would have set up at a table on the patio outside Pane e Vino, the pizza spot on a lower level of the museum building. Instead, I settled for a table with a window view. Sufficiently gorged on an El Greco pie (the names of the pizzas pay homage to painters), I walked up to the art museum to take advantage of the extended evening hours on Thursdays. I felt very urban sophisticated.

Though I'm more used to the scale of the Smithsonian, I gladly accepted the more digestible size of the Huntsville Museum of Art, which is undergoing an expansion. Then I discovered that about half the galleries were closed for final preparations for exhibitions set to open a few days later.

Still, my visit was not for naught. I enjoyed what I did see in the already open portion of the upcoming exhibit showcasing pieces by American women artists. I slowly worked my way through another gallery displaying jewelry by a local woman, Kathy Chan, that ranged in inspiration from insects to a tornado. I may or may not have squatted in front of multiple cases to line up my reflection with the baubles to "try on" some devastatingly gorgeous necklaces.

I didn't give too much thought to the fact that the city seemed pretty quiet. It was, after all, a Thursday evening, and a hot one at that. While in search of breakfast the next morning near the courthouse, I noticed it again, and even more so on Friday night. It's been that way for a while now, said Sam Hathorn, who owns and operates a coffee-pizza-gelato shop called Sam and Greg's with her husband -- you guessed it -- Greg.

"Downtown went through a little of a revival nine years ago," she said. Then the recession hit, and businesses and restaurants closed, leaving behind numerous empty storefronts in the heart of the city. The quiet is a stark contrast to the bustle at the upscale outdoor mall a few miles away.

Hathorn and her husband are pushing to establish a pedestrian hub around the courthouse to create an even more appealing destination for businesses and visitors while maintaining what attracts people from larger cities.

"We like our small-town feel," Hathorn said.

I liked it, too. People were unfailingly friendly. A woman at the visitors center made sure that I got as many 20-percent-off coupons to area attractions as I needed (through the convention and visitors bureau Passport program). While I was snacking beside my rental car in the parking lot at Burritt on the Mountain, another patron called out to ask whether I was okay, because he thought my battery might have died. And when I approached local resident Chris Barr at the Huntsville Botanical Garden to get his impression of the flowering oasis, I ended up being invited to the vegan picnic lunch he was about to tuck into with his wife, Valerie, and their friend Lidia Seda.

It had been an oppressively hot and humid day, but not miserable enough to mitigate the joys of the garden. I admired explosions of hydrangeas. I sniffed a bounty of rosemary, fingered burgeoning eggplant. Butterflies flitted by my head in their large screened-in house. The entire place -- all 120 acres of it -- was a study in contrasts with the towering rocket visible from the nearby space center.

Enough of the locals, particularly the children reveling in the fountains, seemed to have found their way to the garden. But it's probably one of those area attractions that remains under the radar to the wider world.

"It's a pretty good secret," Barr said.

So is Huntsville in a lot of ways. I'm willing to share it.

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