Built initially in the 1840s out of the resulting need caused by an epidemic and fires, the structure known as Cotton Hall suffered from a fire taking place during a pandemic about 175 years later.
Crews from Mobile Fire-Rescue Department (MFRD) were called at 6:49 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 8 to battle a blaze at the building at 911 Dauphin Street.
A retired firefighter called MFRD to report the blaze when he saw flames coming out of the historic building, the department’s public information officer, Steven Millhouse, told reporters on the scene.
In a statement, Millhouse confirmed Engine 3 was the first to respond to the fire at 6:52 a.m. A minute later, a second crew was called for, making it officially a two-alarm fire. At 7:10 a.m., firefighters discovered the blaze had reached all three floors and called in a third crew, making it a three-alarm fire.
Just before 8 a.m., large pockets of smoke clogged Midtown and traffic snarled side streets as drivers on their morning commutes noticed the artificially darkened skies. At about that time, the flames had subsided a bit and firefighters from 11 companies were again able to begin fighting the fire from the inside of the building.
In addition to the 11 engine companies, MFRD supplied four ladder trucks, two rescue crews, one rehabilitation unit, three district chiefs, members of the executive staff including Chief Jeremy Lami, and other personnel from a variety of departments. In all, more than 60 sworn firefighters came to the scene, Millhouse wrote in a statement.
Although the building is currently occupied by the Infant Mystics Mardi Gras society, there was no one inside the building at the time of the fire, Millhouse said.
Upon arrival, Millhouse said, firefighters began attacking the blaze, but had to initially take what he called a “defensive” position by evacuating and fighting the three stories of flames from outside of the building.
Because of the historic nature of the building and its more sturdy construction, Millhouse said the structure will most likely continue standing. However, firefighters have yet to assess the conditions inside.
An investigation is still ongoing, as of press time and Millhouse said there is no known cause yet. He said once firefighters finish MFRD will send in investigators to determine a cause.
“We’ll be here as long as it takes,” Millhouse said. “The investigators will come in after, talk to witnesses and talk to the property owner.”
The building, now being used as an event space, was still undergoing renovations at the time of the fire, Millhouse said. This being the case, only half the building was equipped with a required fire-suppression system. On the side of the building in which the system was installed, Millhouse said, it worked. The worst flames happened on the opposite side.
History of the building
Cotton Hall was built in the 1840s and was the site of the Protestant Children’s Home for years, architectural historian John Sledge said.
“It’s a nice Greek revival-style building,” he said. “It had been in a state of various owners over the last 40 years until the Infant Mystics took it over.”
During a yellow fever epidemic in 1839, a group of Protestant churches in Mobile formed a committee to care for children orphaned by the illness and two large fires, according to a brochure about the house’s history supplied by the city’s Historical Development Commission.
The three-story structure at 911 Dauphin cost about $4,000 to build on two acres of land, the brochure states.
The Civil War presented another issue for the home, while as many as 85 children were living there at the time, according to the brochure.
The orphanage ceased operations as the Protestant Children’s Home in the 1970s, according to a Mobile Press-Register article at the time, written by Dixie Wooten. The Alabama Baptist Convention took over operations from there. At the time of the announcement, the orphanage housed 24 children.
The home was worth about $100,000 and the board had assets of $80,000 at the time of the transfer, Wooten reported.
Starting in 2007, the building housed staff members of the Battle House Hotel, according to Mobile Planning Commission documents.
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