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Worth the Drive: Josephine Art Center

Stop by the Josephine Art Center for food and new friends

By Jennifer Kornegay

If you visited Union Springs, Ala., about 130 years ago, you might have checked in for a stay at The Josephine Hotel. Built by Dr. Robert Fleming in 1880, the 17,000-square-foot, threestory building downtown was named for his wife Josephine and has been operating in some form or

An assortment of treats awaits at the Josephine Art Center.
An assortment of treats awaits at the Josephine Art Center.

another ever since, passing the decades after its hotel days ended as a saloon, an oyster bar, a hair salon and even a tire store. Today, as the Josephine Art Center, it’s hosting guests again, many of them “out-of-towners,” and its Ice Cream Parlor and Sandwich Shoppe is a great choice for a leisurely lunch.

Enjoy a ham and swiss sandwich with a side of heritage or a chef salad with a dollop of culture. Making use of the old hotel’s bottom floor, the Josephine Art Center houses a gallery showcasing paintings, wood carvings and crafts created by area artists. Old photos and other vintage items lining the walls in the adjacent cafe space tell stories of the city’s past like a mini history museum, and remnants of a soda fountain from days gone by sit behind the counter where hungry diners place their orders.

The menu they choose from includes Southern lunch counter favorites done simply and done well: BLTs, smoked turkey sandwiches and fabulous pimento cheese. The Autumn Berry Chicken Salad is packed with tart cranberries and crunchy pecans. The German potato salad is a nice departure from the standard mustard variety, but if that’s what you like, it’s also on the menu. Th e daily special lets you sample several items and comes with a drink for a modest $8.50. Meals here almost always end on a sweet note; it’s near impossible to resist the list of “ice cream delicacies” offered, things like floats, shakes, sundaes and BIG banana splits, all made with Blue Bell ice cream.

There’s little doubt you’ll have a good lunch at The Josephine, but you’ll probably have a pretty good time too. Owners Joyce and Al Perrin are friendly and outgoing. So are many of their patrons. And they’re all happy to welcome newcomers and visitors, encouraging everyone who stops by to sign the guest book. (If you go in the next few months, look back a few pages to find our governor’s looping signature.)

Since the cafe opened in 2012 (the ice cream parlor portion opened in 2011), the spot has become a gathering place where folks come to sit and chat, and then eat, and then sit and chat some more. And you never know who you might find. Maybe a couple visiting all the way from Denmark or local painter Larry Stewart, whose rural landscape works you’ll find in the gallery.

He may be sharing a table with Randolph Hall (a regular at the cafe and a Dixie Electric employee), but he won’t be sharing his banana split; the men usually each get their own order of this heft y treat that’s nestled in a cut-glass dish and sitting on a silver tray. There’s even a resident ghost named Jefferson who has attracted the attention of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators, but he mostly stays upstairs, occasionally striking a note on an antique piano to remind folks he’s around.

What you definitely will find is pride of place. Even though she’s not a Union Springs native, Joyce is a wellspring of information on all aspects of the area’s history, and she’s passionate about spreading good news, especially news concerning the preservation of the city’s many historic structures. (She also works in real estate.) Union Springs boasts 140 historic buildings and houses, many of which are architecturally significant, and the whole length of Main Street is on the National Register of Historic Places. She’s thrilled to report that currently, 22 of the houses and five old buildings are being renovated to their former glory.

A day trip to Union Springs will nicely fill any lazy Saturday, and a visit to the Josephine Art Center should be the top item on the itinerary. Joyce oft en helps her guests map out what to see and do in the area, handing out brochures for self-guided driving tours of the homes and more. Pop in for the food; stay a while for the art and history; ask Joyce to make you a root-beer float for the road; and start your exploration.