Thu, April 17, 2014

Diversions: Road Trips

The Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House, Tigers for Tomorrow, and more.

January 08, 2009

Tigers for Tomorrow

It's a little intimidating to walk through the 10-foot–high perimeter gates at Tigers for Tomorrow, the animal reserve at Untamed Mountain near Attalla. The experience recalls the circumstances in Jurassic Park, where visitors entering the park know that what lies beyond will awe them but could also do harm. The big cats at Tigers for Tomorrow aren't held behind thick glass walls, moats, or retaining walls. Here you can walk among the cages—most cats have their own habitats, replete with wooden dens in which to sleep and logs or other toys to chew and scratch their claws on—and get much closer than you would at a zoo. The organization's owners, president Susan Steffens and Wilbur McCauley, director of animal care and operations, don't want visitors to fear the wild cats and other animals cared for here, but they do hope you will depart with an informed respect for these creatures' untamed instincts.

Tigers for Tomorrow is a nonprofit animal sanctuary that specializes in caring for exotic animals, tigers in particular. It relocated from Fort Pierce, Florida, after sustaining damage from hurricanes and then a tornado, all within the span of a year. The 140-acre site was formerly the home of Bluegrass Farms Sanctuary, an animal sanctuary.

Tigers for Tomorrow takes in animals from a variety of circumstances—from circus sideshows, from people who can't take care of tigers or other exotic animals they bought as pets, or from breeders who send the animals off to auction. Once an animal comes to Tigers for Tomorrow, it will stay here for life.

The menagerie is a wonderland for anyone who takes an interest in large felines. Among the animals who live here are Benny, the black leopard; Towzer "the magnificent," a Bengal tiger hybrid; Bear and Lacoda, timber wolves born in the Northwestern United States; Mr. Lion, a male lion who looks like a character right out of The Lion King; and Willow, Jasmine, and Angelina Jolie, three young North American mountain lions. Tootles, a camel with one hump, and Zachariah the zebra round out the bunch, along with several tortoises and other farm animals.

The commitment at Tigers for Tomorrow requires a lot of effort—and money. Steffens and McCauley feed the animals once a day, serving around 1,000 pounds of meat—chicken, beef, pork, and venison—per week. Any male animals in enclosures with females have been neutered. Volunteers help clean animal waste, build enclosures and animal dens, and keep the park tidy, but they don't have contact with the animals. That work is left to the pros. Steffens and McCauley walk the cats, play with them, feed them, and monitor them around the clock for any signs of illness, injury, or distress.

The sanctuary is currently open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., when visitors can do their own walk-throughs, except during January and February 2009, when the sanctuary will be open to the public only on Saturdays. Tigers for Tomorrow at Untamed Mountain, 708 County Road 345, Attalla, AL 35954; (256) 524-4150;

Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House

Just a couple of hours from Birmingham on the banks of the Tennessee River in Florence lies something of a gem of a Frank Lloyd Wright house—the only Wright building in Alabama. Wright was in his seventies and had just finished what many consider his masterpiece, Fallingwater (near Pittsburgh), when Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum asked him to build their first home in 1939. Theirs would be the second example of a new kind of simple, affordable house Wright called the Usonian. In 1948 the Rosenbaums called on Wright to expand the house, and the family lived there until Mrs. Rosenbaum sold it to the city of Florence in 1999.

By then the house was a shambles. The roof—apparently flat to the naked eye but pitched just enough to allow for runoff—had sagged, allowing standing water to destroy it. The 20-foot-long cantilevered carport had developed, as one observer noted, an "unnerving flexibility." Termite damage was extensive. Wright's original heating for the house, which involved hot water pipes in the concrete-slab floors, had never really worked (the Rosenbaums had relied on space heaters and window air conditioning units over the years).

Thanks to a group that included former Florence mayor Eddie Frost, city museum director Barbara Broach, and architect Donald Lambert, the city meticulously restored the house and opened it to the public as a museum in 2002. (Broach, Lambert, and Milton Bagby recount the house's history—including correspondence between the Rosenbaums and Wright—in Frank Lloyd Wright's Rosenbaum House: The Birth and Rebirth of an American Treasure.) Their dedication to preserving the original vision for the home—including the return of the original Wright-designed furniture (the architect specified every detail of his homes)—earned the house a Wright Spirit in the Public Domain Award from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in 2004.

Wright's philosophy of organic architecture—that a house should emerge naturally from and blend in with its environment—is evident in the Rosenbaum House. The house is made mostly of natural materials such as red cypress, brick, stone, and glass. Large windows and glass doors on one side of the main living space open to a tranquil green landscape; the opposite wall features built-in bookshelves beneath a row of clerestory windows.

The Rosenbaum House is located at 601 Riverview Drive in Florence. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.–4 p.m. and Sunday, 1–4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for students and seniors. Call 256-740-8899 or visit for more info.

Unclaimed Baggage Center

You know you've seen it: the nondescript black duffle probably stuffed with essentials and souvenirs from a long trip—a new designer jacket with the tags still attached, the latest hit CDs, and a video camera, among other things. As it makes its hundredth lonely rotation on the airport luggage carousel, you wonder, "Where does it go now?"

It heads to the lost baggage capital of the world, which is about two hours northeast of Birmingham in Scottsboro. It's the Unclaimed Baggage Center—the one and only retail store in the nation loaded with lost luggage where shoppers can reap the benefits of airline mishaps (often at half the regular price).

The UBC complex, as it is called, is an expansive grayish building that takes up an entire city block. It's easy to spend a whole day there; in fact, that should be a requirement. Aside from the fresh-brewed coffee aroma drifting from the in-store café, the clean fitting rooms, the friendly concierge booth, and the children's video area, UBC looks and feels like an average Goodwill store.

The inventory is 60 percent clothing, so be prepared to sift through row after row and hanger after hanger of fashion mistakes (especially European ones) to find a real gem worth buying or at least trying on. But unlike other thrift stores, the items at UBC were never intended for resale, which makes finding a $400 wool Burberry overcoat for $78 that much sweeter. Most visitors, however, go directly for the electronics, shoes, sporting goods, and CDs in the mezzanine. The ultimate find, if your patience hasn't waned, is in the hundreds of unmarked jewel cases of lost CDs. Only the best traveling music, plucked from an airline passenger's entire personal collection just for the boring flight or family vacation, is at the UBC shopper's fingertips. Virtually everything is here—from obscure international tunes and Paul Simon's Graceland, to the new Radiohead album—and for only $3.50-$6 each.

There's even a housewares department. Don't forget to check out the in-store museum, which details the store's history and houses unique UBC acquisitions: an Egyptian crescent moon dating back to 1500 B.C. that was part of a collection discovered in a tattered Gucci bag sometime in the 1980s; a violin circa 1770; and the mechanical puppet Hoggle from Labyrinth are just a few of the items UBC decided were just too good to give up. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. I-59 to Fort Payne and Highway 35 North at 509 West Willow Street in Scottsboro. 256-259-1525 or

Aliceville Museum and Cultural Arts Center

During World War II, more than 400,000 Axis prisoners of war were locked up in some 700 POW camps across the United States. One of the country's largest prisoner camps was in Aliceville, in Pickens County, in the western part of the state. Camp Aliceville held 6,100 German prisoners from 1943 to 1945. Though it wasn't exactly "Hogan's Heroes," Nazi prisoners nevertheless entertained themselves and their captors by staging plays; handcrafting sophisticated musical instruments that included violins, cellos, and violas to perform prison concerts; and producing an impressive variety of paintings and sculptures that remain on display at the Aliceville Museum and Cultural Arts Center.

In June 1943, the first German prisoners arrived in Aliceville by train after their capture during combat in North Africa. All that remains of the camp is a chimney and historical marker, but fortunately the Aliceville Museum has preserved prisoner artifacts. Maybe Camp Aliceville really was like "Hogan's Heroes" after all. Former prisoners continue to travel to Aliceville from Germany (though they are now octogenarians) with their families for reunions with the American guards who once held them captive. The Aliceville Museum and Cultural Arts Center is open from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. 205-373-2363.

The W.C. Rice Cross Garden

Several miles west of Prattville, County Road 86 twists and winds like a serpent through the rural flatland of south Alabama. Suddenly, thousands of crosses, some as tall as 20 feet, appear on both sides of the road. Attached to crosses and trees, homemade signs testify: "In Hell From Sex" and "What Will You Do With Jesus?"Discarded painted air conditioners proclaim "Hell Is Hot Hot Hot" and dot the crudely decorated landscape, as do disabled washing machines and makeshift wooden sheds adorned with primitive paintings of Christ. A trailer park sits on a hillside just off the highway, next to the late W.C. Rice's suburban, ranch-style house.

Rice passed away on January 18, 2004, and was the "curator" (and trailer park landlord) of sorts at the W.C. Rice Cross Garden. In his driveway is a red pickup truck covered with tiny white crosses and a five-foot wooden cross mounted in the truck bed. A neglected van is parked several feet away, the question "Jesus Is Coming. Are You Ready To Meet Him?" is plastered on one side. Beneath the ominous query are optional "Yes" and "No" boxes waiting to be filled in with the appropriate response. Rice employed the van during his days as a traveling preacher. Cryptic patterns of rocks, which have been splattered with red paint to symbolize the blood of Christ, are scattered around the yard. Inside the house, Rice was confined to his recliner due to a stroke and various other ailments; a 12-inch crucifix featuring a suffering Christ dangled from the 73-year-old visionary's neck. There are nearly 100 more such crucifixes attached to the walls of the living room. Clad in a black sweatsuit with blue crosses handpainted on the shoulders, Rice spoke in a barely audible whisper. "God give it to me," he explained of his fascination with the color black. "I'm going to be buried in a black suit and have a black casket."

In the living room, dollar bills arranged in the shapes of crosses surround a velvet painting of Christ walking on water. The number 27 also features prominently in the room to signify that his mother was born on April 27, 1905, and died on April 27, 1976, the day her soul was saved on her deathbed. It wasn't until his mother's funeral that Rice received a vision from the Lord to construct the Cross Garden. In fact, he compared his sacred visions detailing the creation of the garden to God instructing Noah to build the ark. In the mid-1980s, affluent neighbors sued Rice, claiming that the collection was negatively affecting property values. The neighbors lost.

Rice was revered as a visionary artist by many who have visited his Cross Garden over the years. To him, however, his three decades of obsession with religious symbols were merely a preoccupation with spreading the saving power of the Lord. "I'm not in the art business. I'm in the Jesus business," he used to say with a whisper and a smile. "But I've learned a little about art, too." Visit for more info.

U.S. Space and Rocket Center

It's ironic, but the Alabamian who had the greatest impact on U.S. history was a one-time enemy German scientist named Wernher von Braun, the rocket engineer who designed the powerful V-2 rocket for the Nazis during World War II. Von Braun switched his allegiance to the United States after the war. Relocating to Huntsville to further develop rocket propulsion at the Marshall Space Flight Center, he subsequently created the powerful Saturn V rockets that put Americans on the moon.

The fantastic dreams that Von Braun's genius unleashed and eventually fulfilled are on dazzling display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. A new building has been built for the refurbished Saturn V rocket that would have launched Apollo 18 to the Moon (the mission was canceled). The Saturn rocket is mounted horizontally, 10-feet high, so that visitors can walk beneath its entire 100-yard length. Climb into the Apollo 16 capsule on exhibit and you'll be surprised at how cramped the spacecraft was that took astronauts into lunar orbit in 1969—imagine flying to the moon in a Volkswagen Beetle.

There's also a moon rock or two, astronaut space suits, and a lunar rover vehicle (with odd wire-mesh wheels) that astronauts drove across the moon's surface. Of course, there's the Spacedome IMAX Theater, designed to show outer space documentaries and gravity-defying, daredevil films in glorious 3D. The IMAX screen is guaranteed to grip the attention of any children tagging along. Take I-65 North to I-565, then get off at Exit 15 if you want to reminisce on humankind's greatest exploration accomplishments. Hours are 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday until March 2, 2009, after which the Space Center will be open seven days a week. One Tranquility Base, Huntsville. Admission to both the museum and Spacedome IMAX Theater is $24.95 for adults and $19.95 for kids 6 to 12. To visit the museum only is $20 for adults and $15 for children. Call 256-837-3400 or go to for more information.

Paul W. Bryant Museum

Some say that the Bryant Museum is a multimedia archive of sports history and the University of Alabama's football tradition; others claim it is a fanatical shrine to Paul "Bear" Bryant. Both descriptions are entirely correct, and that's why the museum is such a fascinating slice of Alabama football culture. It's one thing to understand firsthand, or to observe from outside, what the Crimson Tide means to the team's legions of fans. But it is still quite an experience to behold this tradition distilled into a single Smithsonian-style exhibit.

To enter the museum on game day is to enter the holiest of holies, which is not to say that the crowd mingling in the gift shop or milling through the exhibits act like they are in church. Indeed, as visitors wedge shoulder to shoulder into the mini-amphitheater to view a large-screen video presentation of the Crimson Tide's greatest moments (voiceover by Bear Bryant, of course), fans seem only a bit more subdued than they are in Bryant-Denny Stadium. There is, however, a sense of reverence or awe in the room that recreates a typical den circa early 1970s, in which a big console television plays some old Bear Bryant football reviews from the Sunday afternoons of yore.

Throughout the museum are rare photos, film footage dating as far back as the 1920s, newspaper headlines and sports pages, jerseys, paraphernalia, and signed footballs. One clever exhibit features a mock-up of a broadcast booth where visitors may listen, via telephone receiver, to some classic Tide broadcasts. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Sunday.300 Bryant Drive, Tuscaloosa, 348-4668 or &

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