Downtown Huntsville: Pre and Post World War II

I must confess the obvious here: I’ve been fascinated with downtowns and skyscrapers from an early age. I believe it was at the age of ten that my father took my brother and me to watch an Atlanta Braves game, back when Hank Aaron was just a few home runs away from breaking Babe Ruth’s record. Even then, Atlanta had many tall buildings, and I remember seeing the downtown Atlanta skyline from several miles away and being so amazed. As a young boy raised in Huntsville, Alabama in the 50s and 60s, I’d never seen such buildings!

Downtown Transformation
In the 1960s, downtowns were undergoing a transformation, and in retrospect not especially for the better. Urban renewal had not quite become the pariah of subsequent decades but it was on the way. Downtown Huntsville, still with some community and some activity in the 1960s as in older times, was on its way to a decades-long decline, as were many other downtowns. By the 1970s, I remember as a teenager who could now drive, going downtown and seeing absolutely no one walking around on weekends. They were at the new Parkway City (not a mall yet, just a strip shopping center) and other more sub-urban places, spending their time and their money.

Looking back even farther, cities, and more specifically downtowns, carry a different perception, meaning, and significance now than they did in Pre-World War II (WWII) America. Citizens approached cities and downtowns differently in the 1940s as compared to today. Here are some specifics for how the differences show up in Huntsville.

For one thing,  pre-WWII cities were much more compact than they are today. Suburban flight had yet to take off. Huntsville of 1950 was a small, compact town of about 15,000, but was about to welcome some 50 rocket scientists from Peenemunde, Germany by way of El Paso. We should also be aware that in 1950, a good number of folks now lived out in the county – south of what is now Drake Avenue! Eventually, that area became South Huntsville.

We all know how spread out Huntsville is now. As a matter of fact, it is the 29th largest city in the US in terms of its physical size (220 square miles!) Juxtapose that figure for area with population: currently the 29th largest city population-wise is Louisville, KY, with a population of 615,924 as of 2021, slightly above many well-known big cities such as Atlanta, Miami and Cincinnati¹. Huntsville, population 205,000 in 2021 and growing rapidly, did most of it’s early ‘growing up’ at the height of suburban sprawl. What that means for the look of our downtown is we have a city of 200,00 people with a downtown that was serving 15,000 citizens not that long ago in terms of development years.

So even though most cities in America has seen the effects of suburbia since WWII, few have seen it as wholesale as Huntsville. 

How Things Might Have Looked
In the golden age of skyscrapers in America (1900 to World War II roughly), life in a city was quite different from that in the later half of the century. Little suburbia and fewer automobiles meant a compact city and a dense population. If perchance Huntsville had experienced rapid growth just a couple of decades earlier, I think it would have altered the look of the city considerably.

For instance, if we were to measure the Huntsville of today, within the normal constraints placed upon a typical city of pre-WWII days, here’s what we might be looking at. Assuming our current population of about 205,000 for Huntsville proper, we also might be looking at much smaller neighboring cities and unincorporated areas: everyone lives in the city. So my rough estimate of the population of a modern, yet “pre-WWII defined” Huntsville: 275,000 to 300,000.

Now, about that downtown skyline. Since we are comparing a pre-WWII approach to city-building, I’ve put together what our city might look like if all our industries and headquarters were downtown rather than scattered throughout the city and arsenal. This list of skyscrapers makes a few assumptions.

1 – The average square footage per large building in major cities during the era was roughly 20,000 square ft.

BTW, the average height per floor, same period, was about 12.5 feet (more for offices, less for hotels and apartments).

2 – no light or heavy industry downtown, just offices, hotels and apartments.

3 – It is a rough back-of-the-envelope estimate that includes buildings from Redstone Arsenal, where some really big buildings reside.

Here’s an example of how I translate into a pre-WWII skyline:

The Boeing Gateway Center is easily twice the square footage per floor of typical 20th century hi-rises. 15 total stories times 2 =  30 stories if it were downtown in 1945

The entire area on the west side has so many modern very broad buildings; that’s the current architectural style. In general we might have 3 or 4 30-to-40 story buildings by my estimate. Shorter hi-rises of say 10 to 15-stories – an estimate of maybe 20 or 30 of them? Remember – back then, square footage per floor was tighter, and I am indeed including all areas in the metro in counting up these numbers.

So, I think those numbers say something significant about little ‘ol big Huntsville.

And ultimately, I do think a few taller downtown buildings would make for a more pleasing skyline.

¹Check out http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/ for more population data.

About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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