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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.