The Harmony Club as I knew it

“The Harmony Club is a labor of love that will probably be in progress until the day I die. There is always a project that I’m working on, but best part is that I call the place home.” – David Hurlbut, 2012.

For the last few years,  I’ve had the good pleasure of hanging out at one of Selma’s more remarkable downtown buildings, the Harmony Club,  as its owner treated one of its downstairs rooms as a clubhouse and BYOB bar.  In warm weather we’d gather on the sidewalk in folding chairs and watch the traffic; in colder months, we’d huddle inside, bellying up to the bar itself and warming our bones with chili or burritos.  The space has all the appeal of a bar — a convivial space to meet with friends to drink and talk — without the pricetag, since we bring our own. The building was sold in 2022,  and its  new owners will soon begin finishing the restoration work begun by a friend of mine in 1999: those of us who gathered there several times a week for company, movies, and  the sharing of grub and gossip will, within the year, find ourselves “Third Place” orphans.  Before the HC as I knew it passes into history, I wanted to share what I know of the building, and to reminiscence about my time in it.  I like distinctive Places, and the Harmony Club is the most unique in Selma. 

 The building is so named because it was created to be the headquarters and social hub of the Jewish social organization of the same name. They’d existed in town for forty years before opening their new building on November 4th, 1909. The two upper stories were used by the club, and featured a ballroom, a dining hall, and a smoking lounge: the lower story was split into two spaces, both of which were rented out to local businesses like the Selma Times-Journal, or to insurance companies.  By the 1930s, the building had passed into the hands of the local Elks Lodge, who hosted community dances and recitals in the third story ballroom. These owners left their marks on the building: if one studies the floor,   marks made by poker table chairs,  illicit game machines, and dropped cigarettes are apparent.  The deteriorating front balcony was removed in the late fifties, possibly precipitated by an auto collision with the supporting pillars. The Elks abandoned the HC’s upper stories in the 1960s,  which became a pigeon-roost and rat-warren,  until in 1999 an industrial architect with a passion for preserving unique structures arrived in Selma.   David J. Hurlbut brought the place back to life, attacking both pigeon droppings and dropped ceilings, and created bar and restaurant spaces downstairs while he and friends lived upstairs. (The third-floor ballroom was turned into an epic private movie theater, with four king-sized sheets sewn together as a screen.) For David, the Harmony Club was a cathedral and a castle. The long bar itself was created by  David,  who used wood from a bowling alley,  and rented the space to a commercial bar who wanted to relocate from their cramped quarters elsewhere in town.   That renter eventually moved on, intending to buy her own building, and the long bar and its space became David’s architectural-artifact showroom. 

It’s impossible to succinctly describe the sheer variety of stuff in that room, which used to be packed with oddities. To be found there were old toilets, sinks, doors, and pillars – but also X-ray machines used by shoe stores who used them for sizing fits, and first-generation television sets, along with more expected antique items like older chairs, tables, and lamps.   David bought and sold these antiques on the side as his private passion; they were ‘beer money’, as he exclaimed whenever he made a sale.   The space, big as it was, was filled with these elements – but there were also the oddities, as he was passionate about art and  made his own ‘steampunk’ pieces, in addition to occasionally showcasing pieces from local artists. These showings gave life to an official organization, ArtsRevive,  which acquired its own building – but the HC continued to collect and show more eccentric pieces.   These pieces and the place’s general decor make it a place unlike any other, and over the years I’ve grown to genuinely love it as a physical place, even aside from the good times I’ve had inside: its bizarre collection of found-and-created articles, of random decor, slowly grew over time into an ever-changing but reliably weird mosaic of space. When I began looking through my photos to find some appropriate ones to share here, I was amused by the multitude I’d taken, and of areas that aren’t picturesque, like the exposed ceiling beams made of old-growth oak. The bar area has this unique feel to it: the brick, old wood, and dark interior always make me think of an old-fashioned men’s bar, but the random furniture and crazy art put a light twist on a space that might have seemed intimidating otherwise. Especially dear were the oddities that had stories connected with them: a strange sign employed in a prank from fifteen years ago, for instance, or a petit four box decorated with Jane Mansfield.

The bar at Restotonica on the day of David’s funeral

The bar-turned-showroom, which David called Restotonica,   occupied the left side of the HC’s first story. The right side,  separated from Restotonica by a staircase and walls,  was rented by several restaurants, the last of which was Charlie’s Place.   David developed the habit of sitting outside the Harmony Club  and yakking with tourists or visitors to the restaurants, sharing facts about Selma history or architecture, and inviting them in to take a look at his antiques. David’s friends often joined him at this, and it became a salon of sorts – a weekend drinking-and-yakking circle,   where people of all kinds would stop and talk.  This made it a refuge for me in 2020: when everything else was closed, the Sidewalk was open. The Sidewalk gang had its regulars and semiregulars, though  the circle grew smaller and closer after David died in early 2022.  He’d sold the building not long before, though the closing was a year away – so  the Sidewalk has continued meeting in his honor, and by the grace of the building’s new owners and David’s last  roommate, who has been the building’s steward in its last year or so.  I’ve spent many a happy hour outside or inside – enjoying breakfast with friends on Saturday mornings, watching movies on Wednesday nights,   or just holding down a bar stool on Friday and Saturday nights  and yakking with whomever comes in while listening to music from across the world.  We’ve watched parades and drunken karaoke across the street,  gotten to know Secret Service agents who’d pop in for a chat during a visit from DC ,   watched brilliant sunsets,  bizarre traffic and pedestrian goings-on, and sent off a flying lantern in memory of our departed.   I don’t know when we’ll watch our last movie, share our last meal, or use the bottle-openers David screwed onto the utility pole for the last time, but I intend to savor every moment that I can until the Sidewalk closes for good. The building’s new owners intend to complete David’s twenty years of restoration work, culminating in the recreation of the old covered balcony. If that happens, I’ll be all the happier for Selma, and for David’s memory: he’d beam to see it, I’m sure. However glorious it turns out, though, I suspect part of me will always want to come back to the Sidewalk and the long bar as I knew it — this crazy, colorful, intimate and storied spot where I rode out hurricanes and heartaches, celebrated birthdays, and heard too many wonderful stories to remember.

Articles of Further Interest:
In Selma, an Abandoned Men’s Club is Now a Home“, New York Times. Good interior shots of the living area & ballroom.
Harmony Club of Selma, an official website set up…er, years ago. Probably early 2010s.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
This entry was posted in General and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Harmony Club as I knew it

  1. Pingback: The last act – Time for Me to Fly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s