All it took was a little sex talk and everyone came running. Gulf City Lodge was packed with folks, many likely neophytes to its historic setting.
The timeworn building on a downtown corner was perfect for the Downtown Business Alliance’s look at Mobile’s old red-light district. Azalea City native and Montgomery archivist Raven Christopher came armed with a video presentation and the acumen her evidence required.
Christopher began with prostitution in the French colonial port town, then moved to 1888, when progressive reforms birthed a zone for the world’s oldest profession that lasted 30 years. Her exhaustive tales and insights are available in greater detail at her website, mobilesredlightdistrict.com.
Christopher revealed the lodge’s own bawdy past. She narrowed its original construction to a period between 1873-85. Architectural historian John Sledge once called its particular style “socially … as well as historically significant.”
A black-and-white photo of Bertha Clay appeared on screen, a madam who listed her 1897 address as 601 State St., the lodge’s current site. Lillian Carson’s face soon flashed, a madam at the same address in 1909, 1910 and 1920.
Christopher found a 1924 deed for the property, which listed ownership by the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World, an African-American fraternal order. Hence the rebirth as Gulf City Lodge.
The building was later expanded, its capacity for entertainment and social events increased. When the Colored Carnival Association — later to become the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association — was founded before World War II, the lodge was at its epicenter. Chief organizer and first CCA King was Alexander Herman, who became Exalted Ruler of the Elks chapter.
Queen Aline Jenkins Howard told a 2012 interviewer the royal couple didn’t ride in the CCA parade.
“We sat and watched from the Elks Lodge,” she said, no doubt perched atop the tiered review stand on the building’s Warren Street side.
Gulf City Lodge has hosted a reception for their successors ever since. Mardi Gras royalty through seven decades — including professional athletes Tommie Agee and JaMarcus Russell, politicos Yvonne Kennedy, Douglas Wicks and Jermaine Burrell — have been feted at the lodge during Carnival. That number includes Alexis Herman, former U.S. Labor Secretary and daughter of Alexander Herman.
The lodge was a focus of the African-American community in the 1940s and ‘50s. To enter, men needed a coat and tie, and women could not wear slacks.
As Elks membership waned through the years, the building fell on hard times. An individual bought and mended it nearly 20 years ago.
It’s fitting Christopher’s program took place in the midst of what was once deemed Mobile’s “jazz season.” Fans know of jazz’s genetic link with Storyville, New Orleans’ counterpart to Mobile’s Tenderloin.
As Christopher spoke, the weeklong Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival was in full swing. In an era when the lodge had jazz bands every Sunday night and sharply dressed folks filled the dance floor to dust off everyday life before starting another work week, GCEHJF hosted jam sessions in the room.
The Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed began and prospered there, too. MOJO is so closely tied to the tantamount speakeasy’s emotionally varnished walls that when word leaked about recent questions on the building’s status, concern for the jazz society’s future appeared on social media.
Some questions subsided for now but uncertainty lurks. Repairs are still needed, equipment updated, leaks patched. Though renovated in 2000, Gulf Coast weather can be harsh.
One rumor afoot orbits plans for a jazz and blues museum at the lodge. It’s a daunting workload: nonprofit status, architectural evaluations, extensive overhaul, an expanded board of directors and access to very deep pockets. They would have to accommodate exhibits in addition to performance space, which might entail doubling the 10,000-square-foot facility, possibly into the lot next door.
It’s not as if Mobile doesn’t have the legacy for a museum. Names like James Reese Europe, Cootie Williams, Urbie Green, Fred Wesley, Lil Greenwood, Sam Taylor and Jabo Starks arise, some of whom played that room. I undoubtedly missed others.
Mobile keeps so much of its identity in its past, especially where Mardi Gras is concerned. It’s oddly stupefying a unique and utterly authentic cultural nexus like Gulf City Lodge hasn’t been coddled more.
The American Legion Hall on Government Street was more decrepit than Gulf City Lodge and a quarter century older to boot. A Mardi Gras group saved it from demolition in March 2017.
So why not Gulf City Lodge, then? It might be more low-key than a Government Street lot but its potential, value and appeal spreads across more realms.