Breathing new life into old buildings has long taken place in Alabama. Cotton mills in Huntsville have found new purpose, including Lowe Mill located southwest of downtown. Home to over 200 artists, Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment Center is billed as the South’s largest privately owned arts facility and includes seven fine art galleries, a multi-use theater, event space and a community garden.
This prominent Huntsville cultural amenity recently participated in DesignAlabama’s DesignDash, a one-day, all-out-effort that brings together community members and design professionals who focus on a design and planning issue. A facilitator leads discussions among community members and design professionals. During the second half of the day, the design professionals work alone to create ideas, renderings and other images based on their findings.
“So much of the focus on Lowe Mill has always been on programming the internal spaces for artists, studios, and exhibitions, but through DesignDash we had the opportunity to look at the whole facility and help envision how to program some exterior spaces,” explains Lowe Mill facilitator Brandon Bias, a community and regional planner at Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood.
DesignDash also looked at connectivity to the center’s adjacent neighborhoods and the downtown. Since the Lowe Mill DesignDash, the city of Huntsville has been awarded a $20 million federal grant which will help improve connectivity. The grant will be used to help fund a long planned pedestrian bridge designed to provide safe connectivity between the downtown, Mill Creek, and Lowe Mill communities. Currently known as Skybridge, at certain elevations this dramatic-looking cable suspension bridge will appear to be floating in the air.
What to do with Lowe Mill’s boiler room was also discussed, which remains the mill’s last unimproved space. The DesignDash team looked at how to preserve and stabilize this area, Bias says, and how this space could be integrated into the overall facility.
Responding to the development of the mill’s neighborhood provides the arts and entertainment center with “a tremendous opportunity,” Bias says.
“We explored ideas on how to provide on-site or adjacent residential development for artists. But also, how the mill can be integrated in with improved sidewalks and trails that could make it more accessible to a larger and nearby audience.”
Programming exterior space could greatly enhance the facility, he adds, and while there are some outdoor events at the Mill, creating improved space would make those events more functional.
“A great of example of this is the ‘Central Courtyard’ that is a weakness which could be a huge asset. Right now, it is just service space and storage, but the recommendation is to develop that as event space with some open-air type structures for markets, festivals, concerts, etc.” Bias says the design team is uncertain what might be implemented first but believes the central courtyard would be most impactful.
“When it functioned as a mill, it was likely just exterior storage and service, Bias says of this central courtyard area. “Now as an arts facility it has the chance to be a new and dynamic way to engaging the facility.”
A cotton mill is a good example of early industrial architecture which is appreciated by those who now use Lowe Mill. The Mill opened in 1901 as Huntsville’s fifth cotton mill. When cotton was no longer king Lowe Mill was used for several functions including shoe manufacturing. In 2001 Jim Hudson, founder of Huntsville-based Research Genetics, bought the property and reopened it as the Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment Center.
“Character of the facility was a huge talking point for us,” says Bias. “If you haven’t been, I describe it as a very organic and gritty facility, in a good way, and we would not want to make any recommendations or improvements that took away from that quality. It feels very much like a space created by artists for artists and that is important to them.”
Article Written by Jessica Armstrong and Images Courtesy of DesignAlabama