A water feature charges into the air at Big Spring Park in Huntsville.

Ever wonder why the Rocket City’s skyline might seem a little short for a city that reaches for the stars? Here are ten stories about Huntsville’s ten-story limit (sort of).

The Backstory on Skyscrapers in Huntsville

The short answer (no pun intended) is our small-town roots. Huntsville has grown rapidly in the last forty years – the population in the city limits has gone from half of Birmingham’s in 1980 to more than Birmingham today – and the look of downtown is still informed by those pre-boom years. As the city code describes it: “For 150 years Huntsville has functioned as a small, rural town although growth during the late 20th century has partially obscured those origins. The downtown and adjoining residential historic preservation districts are the only surviving concentrations of the historic town; two of the districts are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and more than 35 structures and sites in the commercial core are individually listed on the Register.”

Against The Law

For a while, building taller buildings downtown was against the law. According to city ordinance: “The ten-story height limit assures that new construction will be compatible with historic structures; minimizes the wind tunnel effect between buildings; assures the penetration of sunlight to ground level; enhances the pedestrian streetscape; and is conducive to small scale retail and service establishments.” The goal was to “continue the development of the downtown in such a way as to provide a strong sense of continuity with the past by continuing those characteristics that created its identity: a dense concentration of low-scale buildings, a pedestrian rather than car orientation, high-quality materials, and design, a diversity of uses including street-level retail and services uses, and generous landscaping to soften the streetscape and buffer where needed.”

Sunlight reflects off of the glass façade of the Regions Building in downtown Huntsville.

No Limits in Downtown 

Today, however, that’s no longer the case. In 2009, new regulations were put into place that removed the limit in the heart of downtown but created shorter caps in the surrounding area. Huntsville’s future skyline may look different: since the change was made, multiple new developments have been proposed that would take advantage of the change, but none have yet been completed.

Preparing for the Future

To get ready for that taller future, we’ve already bought a new fire truck. Capping the height of downtown buildings limited the requirements on the fire department, but in 2016, the City bought its first aerial ladder truck to handle taller buildings.

The tallest building in Downtown Huntsville

The tallest building in Downtown Huntsville is the Regions Center, built in 1990. It predates the ten-story limit and just exceeds it, at 11 stories (plus a penthouse). It towers over downtown at 189 feet tall.

The Russel Erskine Hotel stands tall in historic Huntsville, Alabama.

Most Stories in Town 

 While the Regions Center is the tallest building downtown, it doesn’t have the most stories. Two buildings from 90 years ago are tied for that record at 12 stories. The erstwhile Hotel Russel Erskine (now apartments) stands at 148 feet tall and was built in 1930; the Times Building stands 135 feet tall and was built in 1929.

Huntsville's most famous resident, the Saturn V rocket, points towards the stars on a clear night.

Saturn V Height

If you could take the Russel Erskine building (downtown Huntsville’s second tallest building) and stack it on top of the Regions Center (the tallest), they’d still be 26 feet shy of the Saturn V rocket standing outside the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, at 363 feet (not counting the stand).

Going Up

While the Times Building is 12 stories tall, the elevator only goes to the 11th story. The original plans called for the building to only be 11 stories tall, but when the owner got word that the Hotel Russel Erskine was going to be 12, he commissioned another floor, even though it was too late to change the elevator.

Cutting Edge Technology

Lest anyone doubt that being on the cutting edge has always been in Huntsville’s personality, the original May 1929 lease for the operation of the Hotel Russel Erskine insisted that the Huntsville Hotel Company “add high-tech features such as wiring for radio and telephones, automatic signals in the elevators, an electric sign on the roof, and fine furniture.”

A NASA Test Stand is on display in Huntsville, AL.
Image: NASA photographer Cooper

Test Stand Tall

Huntsville has only one of the ten tallest buildings in Alabama (number 10, of course), and it’s far from downtown. Marshall Space Flight Center’s Dynamic Test Stand, used for testing of the Saturn V rocket and the space shuttle, stands 374 feet tall. Built in 1964, it may be much newer than the historic downtown, but it also is a National Historic Landmark.