If you’re a fan of classic musicals, when someone mentions River City your mind might go straight to The Music Man and its song “(Ya Got) Trouble.” Luckily, though I have a superficial knowledge of some musicals, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. So when I hear someone mention the River City, naturally I think of Decatur, Alabama. To be fair, Wikipedia lists 38 U.S. cities with that nickname, but our destination this past weekend was just to our west over the Tennessee River.
Ruth and I don’t actually visit Decatur often, and we didn’t know much about the city and its charms, so we decided to remedy this by exploring a part of the city on foot. We had a window of opportunity on a Sunday morning for a quick visit, so I did some online exploring first and found a great resource on the City of Decatur’s website. Their mobile site has links to two free walking tour apps that you can download, then use to navigate to points of interest in the River City’s two historic districts. We chose the Old Decatur tour.
We arrived in Decatur just toward the end of the church rush but were still able to nab a parking place on Church Street within 100 feet of the tour’s starting point at the corner of Church and Bank Streets. I fired up the app, cranked up the volume, and got oriented in the proper direction while an introduction to the city’s history played. We learned that Decatur is a relatively old city, settled in 1817 as Rhodes Ferry and then incorporated in 1820 as Decatur, named for the naval hero Stephen Decatur, who had recently been killed in a duel. It’s important to know this, as the historic district signs use a profile of a naval commodore, which could be mistaken as a man in a deerstalker cap, or maybe a headless shrugging ghost.
The city became a transportation hub, with its access to the Tennessee River and the arrival of the railroad in 1836. The city changed hands several times during the Civil War, and ultimately most of it was burned or dismantled by 1864. The city began rebuilding, though it was ravaged by yellow fever outbreaks in 1877 and 1888. According to the tour, by 1886, the city had recovered to the point that 640 railroad cars passed through the city every day — almost as many as the number that pass through Athens per hour during the Storytelling Festival. (Sorry, it’s an in-joke — the Athens Storytelling Festival, which we highly recommend, is plagued by seemingly-nonstop trains that interrupt the tellers. It has become a game for the tellers, who find clever ways to incorporate the locomotive horns into their tales.)
Many houses from the Victorian era remain — in fact, the historic district is one of the largest collections of Victorian homes in Alabama. The first stop on our tour, however, is for commercial buildings on Bank Street, built during the Reconstruction period. The brick buildings on the left side are a mixed bag of vacant storefronts, antique stores, and professional services like a photography studio and a medical office. One store has a pretty cool display of old lamps and other collectibles in the windows. But perhaps the most interesting feature is in the middle of the street, which has a strip of brick pavement and sections of rail from the trolleys that used to run between Decatur and its erstwhile sister city, New Albany.
Continuing down Bank Street, the next tour stop is Simp McGhee’s. It’s a restaurant named after a colorful character in Decatur history, housed in a building on the National Register of Historic Places. No particular date is given for the building, but it is associated with a saloon run by the 1880s riverboat captain, who owned several businesses in town, including a brothel. This block also has one of the Civil War history interpretive signs that describe the battle for Decatur and the garrison of 1,800 Federal troops stationed there in 1864-65.
Two blocks southwest on the corner of Bank and Cherry Streets, the old Hargrove & Murdock grocery building, built in 1897, is still in use as a commercial building. For many years it was a downtown grocery, though it was the site of a brothel in earlier days. I don’t know if this was the brothel that Simp McGhee is associated with, or whether it was a competitor. Anyway, the building has handsome original arched windows on the front and interesting round windows on the south side.
The tour continues a couple of blocks down Cherry Street, leaving the arts and entertainment district and entering a residential area. We were struck by contrasting sights on either side of the street — a somewhat passive/aggressive sign on a fence to the right, and on the other side, a bottle tree. Bottle trees are a distinctive Southern garden decoration. According to folklore, the bottles trap night-roaming evil spirits, and cobalt blue bottles are particularly effective. I don’t know what goes on in that stretch of Cherry Street, but I suggest keeping a wide berth at night!
Though the tour is now in a neighborhood, the next stop is actually at another commercial building. The John T. Banks Building, erected in 1887, was built by a druggist and it became the temporary Morgan County courthouse when the county seat was moved from Somerville. It has since been used as a hospital and store, then later as a rooming house and apartment building, before its current use as office space. It looks a little out of place next to the Victorian homes in the neighborhood.
This might be a good time to comment on the general vibe of the historic district. There’s an eclectic mix of architectural styles in roughly a 5-by-6 block area. Most of the houses are in great shape, though as is often the case in historic districts, there were a few in need of some TLC. For the most part, these are family homes, with porches and lawn decorations. People live here. It’s a neighborhood, not a museum, with an organic, unplanned feel.
One of the stateliest homes on the tour is Shadowlawn, built around 1874 by one of the town’s doctors. So named because of the massive willow oaks, it’s a classic beauty on the corner of Line and Cherry Streets. It’s an interesting contrast to two more modest homes on the other side of the street, also tour stops. The Leadingham House was a cottage for two maiden sisters, and next door’s Collier House is a Queen Anne built by the town clerk, who married another of the Leadingham sisters.
The next stop on the tour is a bit of a surprise — a small park on the south side of Shadowlawn. Frazier Park is a quiet space with a traditional Japanese garden on one end, with water features and a more classical plaza on the other end. It’s not necessarily historic, but it’s a nice place to take a break.
The next stop on the tour is the Judge Seybourn Lynne home on Ferry Street. The home isn’t one of the older ones in the district — it was built in 1925 — but is historic by association with Judge Lynne, a federal judge who served nearly 30 years on a court that heard several important civil rights cases. His views on civil rights evolved over time, as he was the dissenter on a three-judge panel that ordered the integration of the Montgomery bus lines, but he wrote the opinion that integrated the University of Alabama and later issued rulings to integrate jails and Birmingham’s most prestigious cemetery.
My favorite house on the tour is on Ferry Street. The Williamson House, built in 1903, is a Victorian beauty with sweeping porches, leaded glass, and other architectural details, on a wooded corner lot. In fact, that corner is Victorian heaven, as just across Walnut Street you’ll find the J.T. Jones House, built in 1899. It’s another confection, in the Queen Anne style, with terrific woodwork on the facade.
I’m not going to post a photo of every house on the tour — you’ll just have to see them all for yourself. However, it’s not a historic district if it doesn’t have a hitching post. This one is from the Wert-Martin House, originally built in 1886, and much remodeled afterwards. Note the curb here — it’s made of slabs of hewn stone, not cast concrete.
I really like that this tour highlights a variety of architectural styles. The International Art Deco style of the house known as Fort Nash is quite a contrast to the wooden frame houses found elsewhere in the neighborhood. Designed in 1939 by the head of the Architecture Department at Auburn, the exterior is composed of solid limestone walls and glass blocks. It seems a bit industrial compared to other homes in the area, and I imagine there had to be a bit of pearl-clutching when it was first put up. The tour narration says the house has a shuffleboard court and a full soda fountain, so it gets cool points for that, I guess.
The tour next continues down Line Street, past the Harris House with its peculiar lozenge-shaped windows, arriving at the Second Empire-style Moseley House. Built in 1887 by one of the town’s largest property owners, the house has a distinctive mansard roof and very appealing detailing on the front porch.
The tour winds up its look at the residential district with a jaunt down Lafayette Street. Three more eclectic choices are highlighted. The first is two side-by-side Sears kit homes, built in 1910. Though the exteriors are slightly different, you can see both were built from the same plan. We spoke with the friendly owner of one of the houses, who told us that one of the houses has a largely unmodified exterior, with a reconfigured interior, and the other has had external changes but has a mostly unchanged interior. Across the street is a remarkable willow oak with an trunk reminiscent of columns I’ve seen in medieval cathedrals. The second notable home is the Gibson House, another Victorian charmer from 1901, beautifully restored. The third remarkable house is comparatively plain, but the Todd House is one of only four surviving antebellum structures in Decatur. Built in 1836, it has been renovated a few times, but the front door and sidelights are original.
The tour emerges from the residential district onto Church Street, where the next stop is the Carnegie Visual Arts Center. This building was erected in 1904 as a Carnegie Library, one of 2,500+ built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. This specimen is typical of the exterior design, and served in its original purpose until the library outgrew the building.
The tour nears its end as it progresses northwest up Church Street, with a one-block jog over to Canal Street for a look at the First United Methodist Church. This building dates to 1899, though the congregation dates back to 1835 and is the oldest church in Decatur. The church features three large stained glass windows, protected by another (later) layer of glass on the exterior.
We followed Lafayette up to Church Street, passing this street mural, before turning northeast to close the loop on the tour. The Old State Bank is one of the last stops, and is another of the pre-Civil War buildings on the tour. It was built in 1833 as a branch of the Alabama State Bank. Though it had an impressive building, it wasn’t very successful as a bank, closing in 1842. A local physician converted the building into his home, and it was converted into a hospital during the war. Since then, the building has had several uses, and now houses a museum that’s open on weekdays. Damage from cannonballs and rifle balls is still visible on the bank’s stone facade. A small building at the rear was originally the kitchen associated with the house/hospital, and now is used for public restrooms. Though it’s not strictly in the historic district, one other home is listed on the tour. The Dancy-Polk House, on the other side of Railroad Street next to the depot, is the third remaining antebellum structure in Decatur, dating to 1829. This Federal-style home also served as a hotel and as the Federal headquarters during the war. We didn’t go over for a closer look, as the house is currently being renovated.
We had a very pleasant stroll in the Old Decatur Historic District. There’s very little elevation change, and all walking is on sidewalks. We didn’t bring the GPS with us, but I’d estimate the walking distance as a little under 1.5 miles. It took us about 90 minutes of leisurely strolling to complete the tour. The tour app was easy to download and use, with good directions from site to site. I wouldn’t have minded a little more architectural commentary, but I wouldn’t want to cause any trouble, especially in River City.