MOBILE— Historic Oakleigh House Museum will reopen Monday, January 12, 2015 to the public after nine weeks of closure that marks the completion of the first phase of a multi-year improvement project that also includes the opening of the Union barracks building.
“During the first phase, we conducted research to create curated period rooms to tell the story of Mobile’s history through the eyes of Oakleigh’s residents,” said Melanie Thornton, Oakleigh’s museum manager. “We tell the story of cotton brokers, urban slavery, railroad expansion, mourning customs and the toll that the Civil War took on people; there is something for everyone’s interest in this new tour.”
Thornton, who is a public historian, along with historic preservation consultant Lauren Vanderbijl, are the brains behind the project. The museum will eventually include rooms curated for the early 20th century to mark the renovations made to the mansion during the Cole and Denniston families’ time living at Oakleigh.
“The structure of Oakleigh that exist today is not a true antebellum home in the sense that it dates authentically to a pre-Civil War era. Updates and additions were made in the second half of the 19th century as well as the early part of the 20th century. Over the course of 100 years, each resident of Oakleigh adapted and preserved the building that you see today,” said Vanderbijl. “Instead of trying to create an antebellum experience, we thought it best, from a historic preservation perspective, to celebrate Oakleigh’s strengths, by letting the house speak for itself and tell its own story.”
The goal of the new interpretation method is to travel through time as you travel through the home. Once the entire project is complete, a visitor will be able to see the gradual changes in interiors of the 19th to early 20th century to include furniture styles, colors and even technology, as well as the social changes that took place in Mobile.
Thornton and Vanderbijl, along with a team of interns and volunteers, recreated the entrance hall and two parlors to accurately reflect the time period dedicated to each room. This task, aside from the curatorial research of the museum collection, required the outside assistance of professional movers and handlers who safely relocated the furniture, mirrors and paintings between the rooms and HMPS’s storage facility.
“We had a few weeks of intense activity that Oakleigh has not seen in quite some time. We are sincerely grateful to all of our partners, including members of the HMPS board, Slaton Movers and the Olde Mobile Antiques Gallery,” said Thornton. “Without our supporters, this would have not been possible.”
One of the new highlights is Corinne Irwin’s room. Corrine was the daughter of the first generation of Irwin’s who lived at Oakleigh. She died in the house, two weeks before her wedding, of typhoid fever. In this space, the tour will focus on epidemics in Mobile and mourning customs of the Victorian-era. The funding for this room was generously provided by the Friends of Oakleigh endowment fund in honor of Joann Wheelis. The room will bear her name.
The guided tour will be concentrated on the upper level, the original main living area of the mansion, while the lower level will include a visitor’s lobby, exhibit space, gift shop and a collections work area for the staff.
“We are very excited about our temporary exhibit space, where we will be able to highlight topics in Mobile’s history and items in our collection that aren’t part of the general tour,” said Vanderbijl. “Our first exhibit will be dedicated to Emma Langdon Roche, a pioneering journalist whose 1914 book, ‘Historic Sketches of the South,’ shed light on slavery and the plight of the Clotilde.” This exhibit, which will open in April, is in conjunction with HMPS’s lecture by Sylviane Diouf, scholar and author of “Dreams of Africa in Alabama” as part of the Southern Literary Trails program sponsored by the Alabama Humanities Foundation. The lecture will be on April 16th and more information will be available at a later date.
The completion of this phase also marks the first milestone of a year-long commemoration of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society’s 80th anniversary. “We wanted to honor our founding members by breathing new life into Oakleigh, so future generations can enjoy its story of preservation,” said Erica McElhaney, the HMPS board president. “By ensuring its future sustainability, we are also hoping to gain more partners in our mission- those who visit Oakleigh will understand why preservation of our cultural heritage and our historic structures is a top priority of HMPS.”
In addition to the new tour, HMPS will open the Union barracks building that is located behind the house. Once thought to be a house for Oakleigh’s enslaved residents, the circa 1866 structure is one of the only Reconstruction buildings to survive in the South. It will tell the story of Reconstruction and post-Emancipation life in Mobile.
“The building formerly known as the Cook’s House really started it all. The revelation and discovery of its true identity as a laundry facility designed and built for the purpose of serving occupying forces in 1866 just a few blocks away between Selma and Elmira Streets, has exploded our understanding of the 19th century landscape that once surrounded Oakleigh. The HMPS board of directors was inspired by the research process that took place to apply a similar research based approach to the tour and museum at Historic Oakleigh House.”
Oakleigh’s new hours will be Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m.- 3 p.m and closed Sundays and Wednesdays. Wednesdays will be reserved for group tours and field trips, which will begin in the spring with a pilot program funded by the Alabama Humanities Foundation.
For more information, please visit www.historicmobile.org or call 432-1281.