Now I know at least one person reads this column. Good thing that reader has foresight and capital.
In mid-August, Artifice discussed a unique cultural nexus of art and history in downtown Mobile: Gulf City Lodge at the corner of State and Warren streets. A building that began as another post-Reconstruction, two-story abode became a brothel for decades, until the city finally outlawed its red-light district in 1918.
It was repurposed and expanded when the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World bought it in the early 1920s. Under their guidance, it was the parade-day hub for what became the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association as royalty received visitors and reviewed floats from the tiered porch facing Dunbar School across Warren Street.
It has also enjoyed a musical history, hosting generations of jazz and blues shows. It continues as the monthly home for MOJO, the Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed.
The Gulf Coast weather has been harsh on the building since its last renovation 20 years ago, and now the former owner is ready to let someone else handle it.
That someone might be Bob Isakson Sr. The owner of the build-to-suit outfit Lafayette Land Co. lists years of historical renovations throughout the region, including New Orleans’ Rue Toulouse and Chicory Building, an auditorium in Buras, Louisiana, and Iron Hand Brewing and the Hannah Twin Houses in Mobile’s DeTonti Square.
Tantalized by Gulf City Lodge’s past, Isakson revealed his ideas for its future at a late September powwow. The lodge’s current manager, an architectural historian, a Downtown Business Alliance representative and others from Isakson’s circle met beneath the lodge’s framed portraits of musical greats such as Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.
The historian unfurled a copy of blueprints from the lodge’s 2000 restoration. He pointed out its Second Empire Victorian architecture, considered exceedingly rare for the South.
Isakson was visibly excited by his vision. He has poked around the neighborhood, uncovered its stories and luminaries.
He’s done the same with the building and unveiled plans for restoring original ceilings and floors, consulting acoustics experts, installing a sizable rooftop garden and more.
Specifically, he wants to emphasize the building’s singular history. He mentioned converting a front room to exhibit space.
There’s plenty to occupy attention as is — updating the kitchen and bathrooms, repairing leaky spots, installing wiring and things as yet unforeseen. Isakson and others from his company estimated spending $1 million on the job.
But Isakson is in the construction business, not entertainment or food and beverage. He wants someone to lease it from him and keep his investment alive by running a music or event venue.
The current manager said capacity for the main room downstairs is a few hundred. A large room upstairs is nearly as large.
One of Isakson’s entourage mentioned the possibility of letting Mardi Gras societies without their own facilities hold meetings there. Its sector of downtown is awash in float barns.
Artifice mentioned Isakson’s potential development to one downtown bar owner with experience in the same arena. He thought the chief hurdle would be its location six blocks north of the main drag.
“Everybody wants to be on Dauphin,” he said.
Maybe not. Personally, I think for shows oriented toward a demographic aged 35 and older, being a few blocks north of the weekend traffic morass in a spot with a wealth of immediately adjacent parking would be a selling point. You just have to get patrons used to the destination.
Revealing the Artifice bias, its warm environment and tangible history make it ideal for jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues. Marc Jackson’s Kazoola has shown the possibility for cross-cultural appeal with that recipe. What Isakson explained for the lodge sounded like a mixture of that and something like The Steeple.
It might have taken 30 years but Mobile’s downtown is rapidly ascending the comeback trail. Ride rather than drive around during a weekday so you can fully take in what’s going on. Construction lines St. Louis Street and is creeping northward. Gulf City Lodge could be an anchor in the spreading rejuvenation.
Isakson said he currently has a contract to buy it but hasn’t committed yet. He’s giving himself a 45- to 60-day window to test viability and find a manager with a compatible vision and drive.
So, anyone with aspirations should shine up their shoes and put on their best suit. Isakson’s entertaining suitors.