KRISTIE STEVENS / FOR THE ITEM
The office building that houses Huntsville Abstract and Title Company (HATCO) on Sam Houston Avenue first opened in September of 1941 as the Life Theater. It was set to be the third theater opened in Huntsville by Sam Parish, who was already operating the Avon and Dorothy Theaters. Samuel P. Johnson and his wife, Patricia, had their first date at the theater in 1971, which is part of the inspiration behind the renovation.
Johnson grew up in Richards and graduated from Sam Houston State University in 1977. He purchased the title company and the building in 1982. He researched the history of the location for the better part of 20 years before committing to the restoration.
The Walker County Historical Commission will honor Johnson and his company with a preservation award at 3 p.m. Monday, April 10, with public reception to celebrate.
“What we do in our business is research history in order to preserve the future. We look at all the old records to answer the details of what our customers are purchasing. Restoring this building for future generations is an example we wanted to set,” said Johnson.
Remodeling began in December of 2021 and was completed last November. When Mike Keathley and the contractors from Legacy Builders removed the brown tin facade, they found the original art deco design mostly intact. The drawings for the remodel were rendered by Shelby Brock Designs. The stucco exterior was restored and the top center that had been removed was rebuilt.
The maroon tiles that once created vertical stripes on the front proved too problematic to replace, so they used paint to mimic the original design. The new canopy is made of aluminum and is twice the width of the original steel. Low-voltage LED lights were used in place of neon, and they are programmed to change colors for holidays and special occasions. He and his staff choose inspirational quotes to share with the community on the marquis out front.
“I am really proud of the history of this building, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the restoration. It turned out even better than I expected,” said Johnson.
The interior of the building is quite modern, with dark metal frames around the glass partitions that separate the offices. This allows a lot of natural light into the lobby where Johnson has curated a small exhibit of historical images for visitors to enjoy.
A set of black and white prints lead up the stairwell, telling the story of a car giveaway Parish held to promote the theater in 1947. One of the images shows Sam Houston Avenue packed with contestants. One shows a little boy drawing the winner and another is of the lucky lady who won the car. There’s also a print of local boy scouts from the 50s during a community cleanup project in front of the theater.
Two framed images at the entrance are from the Huntsville Item in the 40s. One is an advertisement announcing the theater opening with the movie Life Begins and the other features Sam Parish. Framed posters from movies that were popular during the heyday of the theater are also on display in the lobby.
“I think it’s very important to honor those who spend the time and money to preserve these pieces of history. Sam and his team did a wonderful job of researching and restoring this building and I am looking forward to celebrating that,” said Helen Belcher of the Walker County Historical Commission.