Gardens to Gables

A Late (and Humid) July Sojourn in Mobile, Alabama

I’ve never really considered Kentucky to be southern – one of the things I love most about this Commonwealth, in addition to its geographic contradictions, is its ability to defy categorization and labels. And after spending five days in Mobile, Alabama, I return to the Bluegrass thankful that we are not the Deep South, and that our humidity is manageable, and not like a thick, wet woolen blanket that slaps you in the face and beats you up all day…That said, I was thrilled to spend some time in Mobile  – learning a bit about its history and seeing some of its amazing architecture – and I now know that the birthplace of Mardi Gras is Mobile, not New Orleans. (And even though it was hot, hot, hot, every establishment I entered had stellar air-conditioning.)

Old City Hall, built to serve as city offices and market place, now houses the Mobile History Museum. It is seen against a backdrop of modern buildings and construction for Mardi Gras Park.

Old City Hall (1855-57), built to serve as city offices and market place, now houses the History Museum of Mobile. It is seen against a backdrop of modern buildings and construction for Mardi Gras Park. The building was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

Mobile, strategically located at the head of Mobile bay, has been held by the French, the Spanish, the British – and the six flags of the city testify to the city’s multicultural influences.* Before joining the Confederate States of America in 1861, Alabama declared itself the “Republic of Alabama” but this only lasted for about a month.  By the 1850s, Mobile’s port was one of the four busiest ports in the United States, but after the war, the city, like most of the south, was mired in a depression. During the early 20th century, harbor improvements led to a rise in shipbuilding, which would become a bulwark of the economy.

The USSS Alabama in Mobile Bay.

The USSS Alabama in Mobile Bay.

Due to the heat of late July, I was more than delighted to hop onto a trolley for a tour around the downtown area, which included an excursion out to the Bay, and the USSS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. The World War II ship was slated to be scrapped in 1962 when the state of Alabama organized the “Save the Battleship” campaign to raise funds to bring the battleship to Mobile. One of my favorite stories is that of the more than one million Alabama schoolchildren who “raised approximately $100,000 in nickels and dimes from lunch money and allowances to help the cause, an incredible effort in the days when the minimum wage was $1 per hour and a new 1964 Cadillac was a whopping $3,000.00.”

Our trolley tour was made even better by a canine companion!

Our trolley tour was made even better by a canine companion!

Although my presence in Mobile was due to attending the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions Forum 2016 conference, I tried to see as much of the city – and its architecture – as possible. One of our conference tours was a local overview tour of the city’s seven local historic districts (also listed in the National Register of Historic Places), led by the erudite and very humorous L.Craig Roberts, a local architect, who proclaimed 19th century Mobile architecture to be two things: Greek Revival and Italianate.

Iron work is a mainstay on historic 19th-century dwellings in Mobile.

Iron work is a mainstay on historic 19th-century dwellings in Mobile.

Sadly, the local downtown bookstore in Mobile was closed during our stay,so I was unable to indulge in one of my favorite activities: perusing local and regional history and architecture books to add to my collection. I was able to purchase one tome, The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile, by John S. Sledge, and I look forward to comparing its survey with my own lengthy (and sweaty) walks around three of the city’s local districts.

Though I saw plenty of impressive porticos, I was just as intrigued by the Mobile's collection of Craftsman bungalows and Revival-style dwellings.

Though I saw plenty of impressive porticos, I was just as intrigued by the Mobile’s collection of Craftsman bungalows and Revival-style dwellings.

Since I was limited to my two feet as a means of transport, I didn’t get to venture very far from the downtown area – and thus only barely scratched the surface of the city’s history. I really wanted to take the African American Heritage Trail, but time limitations and lack of car made that impossible. I did manage, however, to take just shy of 500 photographs – which I now need to organize. And start a list for my next trip south – but not in late July. I think maybe winter might be the best time to return to Mobile…

 

* The seal of the city of Mobile no longer features the six flags; this change occurred in 2015.

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6 Thoughts on “A Late (and Humid) July Sojourn in Mobile, Alabama

  1. David Ames on August 1, 2016 at 11:38 pm said:

    Very nice, as usual!!

  2. Susan Dworkin on August 2, 2016 at 7:31 am said:

    Thank you for another very informative and interesting article.

  3. Unfortunately, you purchased what is, in my opinion, the worst architectural history of Mobile. “The Pillared City” is a great disappointment, though its current availability in-print means that people are purchasing it instead of better books on Mobile.

    If you need one book on Mobile, you should purchase Elizabeth Barrett Gould’s “From Fort to Port: An Architectural History of Mobile, Alabama, 1711-1918.” While it should be updated to reflect interwar and post World War II modern architecture such as the Waterman Building, Seamen’s Club, and Bertrand Goldberg’s Providence Hospital, it is a very through architectural history, something that cannot be said about “The Pillared City,” which is a photography book with some text. I found that just about everything covered in “The Pillared City” was already said in “From Fort to Port” with the added benefit that Gould used historic photographs whenever possible, not of what the buildings look like today after 150 years of reinterpretations (for instance, a substantial number of the cast iron balconies you observed in downtown Mobile are not original, they are either contemporary replacements for buildings that lost their balconies or were added to buildings that never had them in the first place).

    I would also pick up Gould’s other book, “From Builders to Architects: The Hobart-Hutchisson Six.” about one of America’s longest lasting architectural dynasties, a family that practiced architecture in Mobile from the late 1700s until 1967. The Hutchissons were often overshadowed at various points by other architects (Gallier & Dakin, Rudolph Benz, George Rogers) but it is unlikely anyone, in any other city can match the number of designs over length of time they practiced.

    Of course, I could recommend a half-dozen other Mobile architecture books to give you a well-rounded view of the city, but Gould’s two books should put you on the right track.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on August 7, 2016 at 10:26 am said:

      Awesome! Thank you so much! The author of the Pillared City was signing books at the conference I was attending, and that was the only exposure I had to any books (since the bookstore was closed).

  4. Kristen J on August 3, 2016 at 6:45 pm said:

    Mobile is my most favorite cities in Alabama for its architecture and seafood. Not far from downtown is a fabulous little neighborhood filled with shotgun houses and a fabulous little art museum. Another neighborhood, the Chickasaw Shipyard Village, was built for shipyard workers during WWII. The white section was lovely two-story houses. Across the tracks were the “colored folks” housing, which were not nearly as ornate or large as their counterparts doing the same jobs. I spent weeks documenting those houses, and in my spare time wandering other districts. Beautiful city, but not where I want to be in July!

    • Janie-Rice Brother on August 7, 2016 at 10:26 am said:

      I thought of you while I was there! And yes, the end of July was not the best time for a first visit…

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