In the study of the past, much emphasis is placed on the actions of people. But long after any single individual’s life, the era-specific homes, businesses and worship centers of a culture tell a story centuries old. Such is architecture’s role in human history.
Mobile, often referred to as the City of Seven Flags, has for more than a hundred years been a convergence of several different cultures, heritages and peoples.
Just as Spanish, French, Native American and African cultures melded together to form “Creole” and “Cajun” communities, the Gulf Coast’s architecture comprises various elements that tell a story all their own through the fading structures that dot Mobile County.
The Historic Mobile Preservation Society (HMPS) has seen both good and bad headlines over the past 10 years, as changes in leadership and direction have overshadowed some of the group’s work. But over the nearly 80 years it’s been in existence, HMPS — the oldest preservation group in Alabama — has successfully worked to save several unique structures and areas that showcase Mobile’s rich history.
Meanwhile, the organization has also used its nonprofit status to help birth other organizations such as the Barton Academy Foundation, the Mobile Historic Homes Tour and the Friends of Magnolia Cemetery, to name a few.
In 2015, the group and its board of directors are taking an advocacy role for several structures throughout Mobile County that are in danger of being lost forever.
For the first time, the group compiled a “Preservation Priorities List” highlighting 10 historically and architecturally significant structures and landscapes that span from the mouth of the Bay up to Mobile and points north.
“In the past 10 years, the society hasn’t taken a strong advocacy role in the city, which it should have,” according to Lauren Van Der Bijl, a historic preservation consultant representing HMPS. “We’re a countywide organization, not just Midtown, Downtown and the historic districts. As we approached our 80 anniversary this year, the board saw there was a huge need for preservation throughout Mobile County.”
The city of Mobile has its own preservation arm, the Mobile Historic Development Commission, but Van Der Bijl said the county does not. She also said the Preservation Priorities List marks a dedication from HMPS to become the county’s only advocate for historic preservation. The group even changed its mission statement to better reflect those intentions.
The inaugural list
Making a list of run-down historic buildings isn’t anything new. The National Trust for Historic Preservation makes a nationwide list every year, as do other groups at the state level. However, HMPS is attempting to do more than just point a finger at property owners.
“Some of these groups just publish a list, to either shame the property owners or for public education,” Van Der Bijl said. “Our approach is a little different. The structures and landscapes on the preservation priority list are those we are at risk of losing, but they have a lot of potential. We want to show their value to the community.”
The HMPS inaugural preservation priorities list was announced last week and includes locations in Mobile, Prichard, Mt. Vernon and Mon Louis Island. It also comprises several different types of structures and multiple periods of architectural history.
“This is a diverse list because we’ve got not just buildings and houses, but we’ve also got cultural landscapes and a full range of ages,” Van Der Bijl said. “It’s also diverse in that it stretches across the county to include big buildings, whole communities and private homes.”
The initial list was whittled down from 20 prospective properties nominated by members of the HMPS board of directors. The final 10 were selected by a preservation advocacy committee.
That board, which can be viewed at the HMPS website, is made up of historians, lawyers engineers, business people, contractors and educators. Van Der Bijl said the diverse individuals on the board share a passion for heritage, preservation, tourism and education.
“Our goal is to foster an ongoing dialogue around Mobile County about the importance of preservation to our local heritage and economy,” Van Der Bijl said. “We want to work with property owners to help identify tangible goals and work with them to see how these goals can be reached.”
Though they aren’t writing checks, Van Der Bijl said HMPS can offer the expertise of its board, which could help the property owners clear some hurdles and red tape.
Van Der Bijl said HMPS could work with owners to put together a plan or timeline for restoration, assist with connections to funding sources, evaluate sustainability or record the oral history of a property.
Also, if a property is not already on the National Register of Historic Places, HMPS can help determine if it would be eligible for that status and take steps towards getting a property listed and documented.
Because it was the first time HMPS has undertaken this type of task, Van Der Bijl said, the format and process needed to be ironed out before public input was sought. HMPS does plan to continue publishing such lists every two years and, according to Van Der Bijl, public input is planned for the 2017 selection process.
“We have very limited funding, but there are funds out there through the National Trust and also through the state that are offered every couple of years. A lot of grants you can only apply for if you’re a nonprofit, so we can act as a conduit for those funds,” Van Der Bijl said. “We can help people apply for that funding if they’re eligible, but we can also work to partner these property owners with other investing organizations.”
However, it’s still very much up to the property owner to get involved with HMPS. So far, the response has been positive, but mixed. Some property owners on the current list haven’t responded at all, but others have already established a good working relationship with the organization.
The Carlen House
The Carlen House at Murphy High School is one of the projects on the list that got a head start. Ryan McKee, president of the MHS Alumni Association, said renovating the exterior of property had been a priority for years.
“We’ve been going back and forth with the school board to try and work out a lease on the property for sometime, but [HMPS] was able to help us push the lease through,” McKee said. “They were also able to help us line up a couple of local contractors and take bids.”
McKee said as an all-volunteer organization it was hard for the alumni association to organize everything on its own. He said HMPS has more expertise and manpower to help speed the process along.
Though he was unable to account for the delay from the school board, McKee said the alumni association was eventually able to sign a 20-year lease on the property with an option to renew. They’ve also been able to spend upwards of $20,000 to completely refurbish the house’s exterior.
McKee said the alumni association plans to move its meeting to the house and locate a small museum of MHS memorabilia there in the future. HMPS maintains it’s not just Murphy High School that benefits from preserving the house on Carlen Street.
David Newell, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a member of the HMPS board of directors, said the Carlen House was built in 1842 and is a perfect example of a Gulf Coast cottage — a type of home predominantly found in this area. To some degree, such homes represent the merging of English and French cultures in Mobile.
“Gulf Coast cottages are a blend of both Creole and American influences. This was counter to the very American idea of having a center hallway,” Newell said. “This would be the Anglo-American influences on the Creole vernacular.”
The exterior renovations at the Carlen House are already underway, and are expected to wrap up at the end of May.
When compiling the 2015 list, Newell said one of the main goals was to present a wide range of architectural styles in varied settings of historical importance. One such instance is the inclusion of Whistler — an unincorporated community that was freestanding until it was annexed into Prichard in the 1950s.
Almost a century before, the Whistler community grew with the Mobile and Ohio Railroad (M&O), which employed most of the town’s residents at the time. The town’s founder, George Washington Whistler, was also the father of James McNeill Whistler who painted “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” famously known as “Whistler’s Mother.”
“Whistler is a wonderful community that a lot of people just don’t know about,” Newell said. “It will likely become a ghost town, and probably in our lifetime, if someone doesn’t step up to help save it.”
Newell said including Whistler was part of the lists’ secondary purpose, to educate the public about historically significant areas and structures throughout Mobile County.
Dodd Cooper, a lifetime resident of Whistler, is one of the few people who still live in the area. Located seven miles northwest of Mobile, Cooper said there’s plenty of history in Whistler that’s worth saving.
There are currently structures there such as St. Bridget Catholic Church that date back to the 1800s. There are also homes that showcase the working class lifestyle that cropped up around the M&O railroad at the time.
“There’s not anybody I can think of that’s famous from Whistler, it was just a working community made up of hard-working people that still had some pride in themselves,” Cooper said.
It’s the architecture of those working-class homes around the railroad that Newell said sets them apart from the large and historic antebellum homes in Mobile.
“It’s not these big homes like you seen on Government Street,” he said. “It’s these little working-class cottages. Some streets are more intact than others, and a couple are renovated but there’s still a good bit of homes there.”
The Kennedy House-American Legion
In the 1800s and for years after, the Kennedy House on Government Street was one of the many architectural jewels in Mobile’s crown. Originally built in 1857 by Jonathan Emanuel as a wedding present for his daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Joshua Kennedy Jr., the house was easily identified by its Tuscan columns and flattened arches.
However, the home has since deteriorated and over the past decade has endured fires and a recurring problem with vagrants. Now its broken windows are visible from the street and a late addition in the rear of the structure marked by cinder blocks is deteriorating more with each passing year.
Though the list isn’t prioritized, the Kennedy House appears first on the 2015 Preservation Priorities list. Newell said it was selected because of its present condition.
“We felt it was at risk of being lost completely,” Newell said. “It’s also in the main part of the downtown historic district, and that’s kind of the front door to the city of Mobile.”
The house’s design represents the transition from the classic Greek revival to initial age form of architecture. Its distinguishing columns, or as Newell says “pedimented four-column portico,” sets it apart from other historic homes in Mobile.
According to Newell, HMPS has been working to connect possible investors or buyers for the property to the American Legion, which has owned it since shortly after World War II. However, those communications have been limited, Newell said.
Advocating and educating
Other than the Carlen House, only one property on the preservation priorities list is publicly owned, and that’s the Church Street Graveyard maintained by the city of Mobile. It, like other properties on the list, is already on the National Register of Historic Places.
Prior to being placed on the list, Mobile commissioned a $14,000 study to assess the short-term and long-term possibles of rehabilitating the graveyard. The study is focusing on the headstones that remain, but could also include suggestions on rehabilitating its historic wrought iron fencing.
Kim Harden, assistant director of the city’s architectural department, said the city will include HMPS when the results of that study are in to see what short-term fixes they might help facilitate. She said it would likely take more time and more funding before any long-term fixes are explored.
Having the organization and resources of the entire city improve the chances of this project seeing renovation efforts come to fruition. The other properties are all privately owned, which puts any possible restoration efforts at the mercy of the landowners.
Van Der Bijl and Newell both said it takes a long time to establish trust with property owners because the HMPS isn’t set up to directly fund any renovation efforts. The time it takes to establish those relationships is one of the reasons future lists are only planned to be released every two years.
“We think there are opportunities, but we don’t have any real desire to push the direction of how a property is used,” Newell said. “We’ll bend over backward to work with these groups on these houses to make sure they get saved, but there’s no stringent requirements to being on this list.”
Put simply, Newell said, the project is about education and advocacy — a renewed emphasis for the HMPS. He also said the group wants to bring preservation into the public eye, where it hasn’t been so much in the past.
Each property on the list will soon be featured on the HMPS website, hmps.publishpath.com, and Van Der Bijl said that emphasis on education is another way to get the public involved with and excited about historic preservation.
It’s also a way to face the reality that not every building can realistically be saved. Whether it’s the owner or the economics, some buildings — like others in Mobile’s history — may ultimately disappear for good.
“Maybe a structure is already past the phase where we can save it, but we can always save the oral history,” Van Der Bijl said. “If a building is at risk because of zoning or it’s just too far gone — our goal is to record it, photograph it and to document its history. That way there is at least something left for the next generation.”