We took a tour of the murals and agritourism in Decatur, Alabama, but what about the cultural sites in town? There are a lot of cool places with art, history and culture to stop at in this historic town. We spent three nights, and immersed ourselves in the City. Hosted by the Decatur Morgan County CVB, I want to share what we saw!
The Old State Bank
The Old State Bank was the last place we visited. However, we learned so much about the history of Decatur here that I recommend stopping here first! Judge Breland, the Administrator and Tour Coordinator was an amazing resource! A Judge for over 25 years, he is best known for establishing a Juvenile Justice resource center. At the Center he helped juveniles learn academics, job skills, and receive counseling and mental health all at one time.
Although the Old State Bank was closed for tours, Judge Breland said they opened for special events like prom pictures and more. Culture is everywhere in this beautiful building!
In the bank is a picture of Stephen Decatur the naval hero. The town is named after him. “He was President James Monroe’s best friend, and President Monroe proclaimed that all states should have a Decatur,” Judge Breland said.
Details about the Old State Bank!
This beautiful building in the Classic Revival architecture style was built in 1833, and has served many purposes. “It has five columns and, is built in Jeffersonian style and was a big part of the Civil War. This was the epicenter,” Judge Breland shared.
The building originally housed the Tennessee Valley branch of the Bank of the State of Alabama. Interestingly inside the bank is a vault rather than a safe! The upstairs served as the residence for the first bank President John Sutherland. “It was totally luxurious in the 1830’s,” Judge Breland said.
On a side note John Sutherland was at the Alamo, but a horse had fell on him so they sent him to get help for the Alamo but it was too late Judge Breland shared.
Civil War History
Today the upstairs is used as a gallery and special event area.
After the failure of the state bank, it saw many varied uses. The bank survived the destruction of Decatur during the Civil War. Captured by the Union Army the bank was used as a Union hospital. The town was only 40 years old at the time of the Civil War. “There were only four buildings left after the 1864 Battle of Decatur and this was one of them,” said Judge Breland,
You can see the effect of the Battle on the columns out front! “We talk about all kinds of history here,” Judge Breland said.
He shared the Old State Bank has history that everyone will enjoy.
Outside there is a neat garden that Judge Breland planted herbs and flowers in.
If there was anything we learned from Judge Breland it was that Decatur is a town with tenacity. “We don’t give up, we survived the Union Army, two bouts of Yellow Fever, we lost the Louisville and National Rail Road in one day and we rose again. This town has a survival instinct and we don’t accept defeat!”
Decatur Historic Depot & Railroad Museum
Judge Breland also took us on a tour of the Decatur Historic Depot & Railroad Museum. The Depot was built by the Southern Railway in 1905. However, the first railroad west of the Allegheny Mountains dates back to the 1830’s! The historic depot was restored in 2014 and 2015 by the City of Decatur when they were contemplating a new police department. Instead of creating a new one, they put in a precinct in the right hand section of the depot!
The depot restoration was paid for by grants and donations. All antiques within are donations as well. There are a lot of wonderful things to see like the original ticket office, baggage carts and more! A couple Eagle Scout Projects also helped make this a special museum as well! Train enthusiasts will love the huge model train section layout of Decatur in miniature!
The Princess Theatre culture in movies, music and more!
We received a tour from Mary McDonald who has been with the Princess Theatre for the Performing Arts since 1987. She told us that the structure began life as a livery stable back in 1887! The Princess became a theatre in 1919. It was transformed into a silent film and vaudeville playhouse. “In 1943, the renovation was to Art Deco.”
That is when the fabulous neon sign and terrazzo floor was installed! When they reopened they were a classic theatre. “Then the City of Decatur bought the building in the late 1970’s,” Mary added. “When they bought the building, they changed things around pushing the stage out, and reduced the seats.”
Judge Breland had memories of the Princess Theatre from his childhood. “You could take six Royal Crown bottle caps and get in. Royal Crown soda and Moon Pies, those were the delicacies. On Saturdays there were double features and the Princess was our babysitter. Mom would drop us off and we were there from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Every year they would take a group shot and we could see ourselves growing up!”
Today the theatre serves as a place for the local arts as well as professional ones. They offer a multipurpose rental facility for the community, serving as an arts education resource for schools. Mary has also introduced a new singer/songwriter night that has proven to be very popular!
While COVID slowed things down, lots of new acts are planned soon with distanced seating. Keith was excited to see that Bruce Horsby is scheduled to play in November. What a grand lady and a treasure for Decatur!
Cook Museum of Natural Science
Mike Taylor and Kara Long, the Gallery Manager gave us the grand tour of this amazing museum. I kept saying how my grandkids would love the Cook Museum of Natural Science through the entire tour!
This is a great place for kids and adults of all ages to fall in love with the natural world! “We have been open in this building since 2019,” Kara said. “But the museum dates back to the 1980’s. We went from 5,000 to 62,000 square feet with 30,000 square feet of exhibit space.”
The Beginning of the Museum
The museum began with the Cook’s Pest Control Company! In 1968, John Cook Sr. opened his professional insect collection to the public by appointment. The collection grew to include a wide array of mounted wildlife. They began touring malls throughout Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. In 1980, with the addition of rocks, minerals, fossils, coral, sea shells, mounted wildlife, they added federally protected migratory birds. A 5,000 square foot building was constructed to house Cook’s Natural Science Museum.
Since then, a Board of Directors was set up and this new museum is a non profit 501C set up as an educational resource. The museum is an award winning opportunity to learn about science! Rare animals are on display, exhibits explain how the Earth is just right to support life. Biomes are explored, and there is a Cave formation story as well.
If there is a star of the museum, it may well be Kale the sea turtle who swims around and shows off in a 15,000 gallon tank.
Then there is the Big Tree and so much more! You just have to check it out and keep your eyes open because there is culture and education and something to see everywhere you look!
Culture at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center
Located in a former Carnegie Library, the Carnegie Visual Arts Center is a beautiful place! Marsha Ercegovic was kind enough to let us in while she was setting up for the new exhibit they were working on, Embracing Art! The exhibit she said focuses on artists from north Alabama. With 65 artists they include an artist as young as 17!
“This is a former Carnegie Library we purchased and raised the money to renovate. We have offered art classes and hosted community events over the last 16 years,” Marsha said.
Converting to a Visual Arts Center
Kim Mitchell the Executive Director shared the library was completed in September of 1904. It was one of the 2,509 libraries built by the millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The Decatur Carnegie Library is an example of one of the classic Carnegie buildings. Originally about 3,500 square feet and costing $8,500, the building served as Decatur’s public library from 1904 till 1973. Books offered culture now art still continues the tradition!
They had just wrapped up a Mardis Gras (which had been stationary floats this year due to COVID) which is their annual fundraiser. The Carnegie Visual Arts Center also has amazing sponsors that help with funding as well.
Decatur an altogether town
With great dining and shopping options along with lodging choices as well, this is an altogether town full of culture and fun! Plan your trip to Decatur and see what all there is to do. Make sure to include A Walking Tour of Historic Decatur, Alabama to round out your visit!