Lowe Mill Arts: An Art Pilgrimage in Huntsville, Alabama
Back in sepia-toned times, it began as a textile mill and was later a shoe factory. Since 2001, this cavernous brick building has been home to a tech town’s arts/culture heartbeat. Nineteen years later, organizers tout Lowe Mill as The South’s largest privately owned arts center. It’s located in a soulful working class neighborhood, on the west side of Huntsville, a North Alabama city known for aerospace engineering that helped NASA put men on the moon with 1969’s Apollo 11 mission. Huntsville is also famously home to Space Camp, where generations of kids, including those of celebs like Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen, come to indulge astronaut daydreams. The past several years, Huntsville has attracted bold font endeavors like the FBI, Blue Origin and Facebook to locate here. The city is about about an hour’s drive from Muscle Shoals, and the fertile recording studio scene that birthed classics by the likes of Aretha and The Stones.
In Huntsville, there are local gems for food, drink, art, entertainment and shopping-scattered around town, particularly on the west side and downtown. But if your time is limited, you can get all those things at one address: 2211 Seminole Drive, aka Lowe Mill.
Being a former large scale production site for consumer goods has advantages, particularly when it comes to parking. Lowe Mill has no shortage of that. However, this being pandemic-stained 2020, you won’t be able to drive onto the lot without a mask, as Lowe Mill stations an employee at the former guard gate to check for them. Inside the actual building, the ceilings are high, so combined with masks and surrounded by visitors who tend to respect social distancing, I feel safe tooling around for an hour or two. Inside Lowe Mill, exposed wizened brick walls contribute to the vibe. Looking out across the back parking lot, you can see verdant Monte Sano Mountain slumbering in the background.
Lowe Mill likes to emphasize its arts and entertainment, but commerce provides one of the facility’s greatest anchors. Vertical House Records is located in an outbuilding on the grounds’ east side. In 13 years, owners and married couple Andy and Ashley Vaughan have built up Vertical House from a 200 square foot space inside Lowe Mill to their current aircraft hangar-esque digs. Here you can sift through 25,000 used and new records, ranging from classic (James Brown, T. Rex, Fleetwood Mac) to contemporary edge (Courtney Barnett, Thom Yorke, Sheer Mag) to local heroes (Brittany Howard, Jason Isbell, Phosphorescent). Other music-heads points of interest at Lowe Mill include local luthier Danny Davis’ fine handmade acoustic guitars at Tangled String Studios and Patrick’s Nickel’s downhome instruments at Cigar Box Guitar Store.
Inside Lowe Mill’s three-floored main building, you’ll find more than 150 spaces and around 200 artists, makers and sellers. Seven galleries featuring regional artists dot the hallways. Recent exhibits there include Paul Cordes Wilm’s’ pop-folk mischief, Phoebe Burns’ dreamy mixed-media and DaNeal Eberly’s sensual brushstrokes. The galleries are set up in corners and main corridors, between them, punctuating the studios which house painters, sculptors, photographers, jewelers, fiber artists, furniture makers and beyond. During opening night events, art enthusiasts intermingle with featured creatives and learn what sparks their work.
With all this gazing and perambulating to do, fuel is key. For a liquid “go,” Piper & Leaf does soft-bliss flavored hot and cold teas and a minty take on straight-up iced tea, as well as iced and hot coffees. For a little more kick, check out Irons Distillery’s silky small batch whiskeys. Victuals-wise, onsite food trailer Chef Will the Palate’s vegetarian entrees have enough oomph to satisfy even carnivores. Sweet teeth must seek Pizzelle’s Confections, for clever chocolates, candies, mini-cakes and homemade ice cream. Other Lowe Mill food go-to’s include Pofta Buna savory crepes, Suzy’s Pops frozen delights, Happy Tummy’s myriad wraps and, until they close at the end of this year, Mountain Valley’s sublime sourdough-crust pizzas.
Gamers get served here too. Timbrook Toys builds and sells a fun, easy-to-learn board game called Hedge Lord. Cozy arcade Hale Electronics boasts a deft mix of classic pinball and video games, perfect for a mid-visit Lowe Mill timeout. There’s also a billiards table in a roomy corner on the first floor.
During the fall and spring, Lowe Mill’s Concerts on the Dock, held on the site’s former loading dock, are Friday night fixtures for Huntsville live music fans. The free concert series hosts rising local and regional talents, including Birmingham R&B faves St. Paul & The Broken Bones. In the covid era, Lowe Mill got creative to keep the music flowing, pivoting to drive-in, with Concerts in the Car. During non-pandemic times, Lowe Mill also hosts indoor shows, in their First Floor Connector space or an upstairs Studio Theatre, by the likes of Los Angeles punk icons X and bands from Single Locks Records, a nifty Muscle Shoals indie label co-founded by John Paul White. In addition to music and visual art, Lowe Mill hosts events built around film, comedy, poetry, pop culture, fashion and storytelling. Not to mention a vibrant Day of the Dead party.
Lowe Mill is open 12 – 6 p.m. Wednesday to Thursday, 12 – 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Saturday. For those looking for afterhours action, nearby Campus No. 308, housed in a former middle school, is home to Huntsville’s two biggest breweries, Straight to Ale and Yellowhammer, as well as scrappy local music bars, Lone Goose Saloon and, simply dubbed, The Bar, and Earth and Stone’s fab-fresh pizza. Further eats can be found down Governors Drive at Stovehouse, a well-curated food garden with everything from ramen to barbecue. If you’re in need of pregame caffeine or postgame brew, Gold Sprint Coffee is just a few blocks from Lowe Mill and pours craft bevs, a cycling-centric space that also hosts occasional art exhibits and indie rock. A DIY/all-ages music venue dubbed Trash Bone just opened up around the corner.
Lowe Mill is one of the first things many Huntsvillians recommend for out-of-towners to check out. One of the most endearing things about Lowe Mill, despite being a frequent tourist destination, is that locals still love it too. It’s also equally accessible to hipsters and strollers. As a Huntsville native and longtime resident, it’s where I go to feel transported from the everyday but don’t have time to travel. Or just to get an eyeful of inspiration. Or pick up a tasty treat or new jams. For first time visitors, the Lowe Mill website and social media is a good way to see what’s shaking or upcoming. You can scout out studios and shops you want to make sure and see while there. But the only real way to experience Lowe Mill is to wander around and explore it in person. You’ll make a new memory or find a keepsake to bring back home for someone special. Or, more than likely, all the above. —Matt Wake
This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 Quarterly