Historic Structures

Belk-Hudsons Department Store - Fowlers Store, Huntsville Alabama

Date added: June 18, 2022 Categories: Alabama Retail Department Store

When the locally owned Fowler's Department Store opened in 1930, it was one of the largest upscale department stores in Huntsville. Located at 116 Washington Street in the heart of Huntsville's premier shopping district, Fowler's opened directly after the city's commercial 1890 to 1929 building boom period. North Washington Street contained five department stores: Kress, Woolworths, J.C. Penney, Dunnavant, and Fowler's, as well as many smaller shops, restaurants, and two hotels. The area flagship store, Dunnavant's, was located on the same block as Fowler's, but the chain department stores (McClellans, Kress, Woolworths, and J.C. Penneys) were concentrated two blocks south. Fowler's Department Store went bankrupt in 1938 but later resumed business nearby until the late 1970s or early 1980s. In 1940 the northwest building became a Belk-Hudson Department Store, one of a large national chain of stores. In 1944, Belk-Hudson also leased the 1936 east building. This union, joined to serve the space needs of Belk-Hudson, made it one of the largest department stores in Huntsville at the end of World War II. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Huntsville's department stores gradually moved out of the downtown shopping district.

This red brick Commercial-style building has the simplified forms typical of many such structures of the early 20th century. The 1930 northwest corner store building located at 116 Washington Street is almost square in plan and consists of two stories and a full basement. There are four bays on each facade, marked by four-foot wide shallow brick pilasters which are capped with a simple limestone rectangular capital. The approximately five-foot high entablature above the pilasters is a simple corbeled brick architrave and cornice with a limestone bed mold under the architrave. The architrave is punctuated by small rectangular metal roof-space vents.

The fenestration of the northwest 1930 building consists of three levels on the two aboveground floors. The ground-floor shop windows extend the full width of each bay between the pilasters. In 1984 the spandrels under the shop windows were raised to about three feet high when the building was converted in a makeshift way to offices. The second level of fenestration is bands of three wooden fixed six-light clerestory sashes which once threw daylight deep into the interior of the store by bouncing it off the top of the low display window ceilings (which formed a narrow mezzanine) in the typical manner before cheap electricity and effective electric lights. These clerestory sashes extend almost the full width of each bay-spandrel. They have continuous limestone sills and eight-inch high soldier-course brick lintels (supported by concealed steel). Below the clerestory bands is a two-layer band of sixteen-inch high basket-weave brick as a decorative device that was just above the now-gone awnings at the display windows.

The third layer of fenestration (the second-floor sashes) consists of pairs of large wooden double-hung one-over-one windows, a pair being in each bay-spandrel. The sills are individual limestone lugged-end types of a similar design to the clerestory sills, The window lintels are eight-inch high brick soldier-courses like those at the clerestory.

The asphalt roof is nearly flat, and slopes slightly to the east rear.

The structure of the 1930 northwest corner building is solid-brick bearing walls, and per Mr. John Lowe, the son of the original owner, reinforced concrete main floor, with the second floor and roof consisting of steel main beams at each bay-line with wood joists spanning between. The 1930 oak flooring remains at the second floor. The main floor surface is now concrete but probably was wood (on sleepers) originally as were the other nearby early 20th-century stores. The basement floor is concrete and this may have been the 1930 finish.

The east building located at 214 Holmes Street was built in 1936 after a fire destroyed the livery stable that occupied the site. The 1936 building, per Mr. John Lowe, originally served as a store for farm implements (Huntsville Implement Co.). Therefore, this building's floor is a concrete slab on grade, for strength. The roof structure consists of steel columns and steel trusses with wood joists between, per Mr. Lowe. The roof is nearly-flat. The walls are 12-inch thick solid brick, salvaged from the burned livery stable (1936 brick at the exposed north wall). The masonry contractor was Dan Brandon.

The facade of the 1936 east building, as would be expected for a Depression-period implement store, is a simple four-bay brick wall with narrow brick piers topped by a plane of brick capped with a simple limestone coping. The large display windows and wide entry bay were boarded up in the 1980s office remodeling. The brick piers are corbeled at the top to suggest capitals. The flat plane of brick above the piers has a large rectangle of basketweave pattern bricks similar to the 1930 building, framed by an eight-inch soldier-course band of bricks.

The original stamped-metal ceilings of all three floors of the northwest building and of the east building remain. The 1980s acoustical suspended tile conceals most of the first and second floor metal ceilings at the northwest building, but this is easily removed without significant damage to the 1930 metal ceilings.

The 1930 elevator, glassed elevator doors, and brass call-button plates remain at the northwest building. The 1930 wooden stair is present to all three floors of the northwest building as well. The northwest stair of the northwest building was added in the 1950s, as was a stair connecting the basement and the east main floor.

The ceilings of the main floors of both buildings are about sixteen feet high. The second floor ceiling is about twelve feet high. The basement ceiling is about ten feet high.