The Malbis Plantation Historic District was recently named to the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual “Places in Peril” list, identifying the property as one of five historically significant places in the state under redevelopment pressure or facing neglect.
The Malbis Plantation Historic District is is located less than a half-mile south of Interstate 10 on State Highway 181 at U.S. 90. The plantation is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. Portions of the land, owned by Malbis Plantation Inc., are within the city limits of Daphne, but much of the land is unincorporated.
The plantation was named one of the county’s historic districts in 2014, joining Magnolia Springs, Point Clear/Battles Wharf and Montrose. Designation as a historic district means all construction, exterior improvements, demolition and landscaping must first be reviewed by the Baldwin County Architectural Preservation Review Board. Only about 860 acres of the original 10,000-acre plantation remain undeveloped.
“The plantation encompasses one of the largest and best-preserved collections of agricultural buildings in Baldwin County, and perhaps in the state,” a release from the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation said. “Twenty-six buildings remain from this commercial complex, with the architectural crown jewels being the Big House (1906), the Tampary-Simmons House (1928), the Greek Orthodox Malbis Memorial Church (1965) and the Malbis Cemetery located south of the church.
“Malbis Plantation is unique to Greek-American history, serving as one of few examples of Greeks choosing to establish themselves in an agrarian community in the South. Locally, Malbis Plantation is an example of a common settlement pattern among immigrants pursuing agriculture and livestock in central and south Baldwin County in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Michael Panhorst is the chairman of the Places in Peril list selection committee. He said the Malbis Plantation was nominated by a resident who lives in a subdivision adjacent to the plantation, with support from several local historic preservation groups like the Baldwin County Historical Society.
“It seems there is a consensus of people there who believe there is a significant threat of insensitive commercial development in the Malbis area,” Panhorst said. “There are folks there who want to protect that district.”
Malbis residents have helped to defeat many of the efforts to bring proposed developments including drug stores, townhomes and fast-food restaurants.
An effort to have the city of Daphne annex 17 acres south of U.S. Highway 90 near Mt. Aid Missionary Baptist Church into the city for commercial use failed in February. Had Daphne annexed the land, it would have lost its historic designation from the county. The property would have been used for townhomes with some commercial use along the highway, according to reporting in Lagniappe at the time. Daphne’s comprehensive planning area encompasses much of the historic district.
The purpose of the list, according to Panhorst, is to alert the public to the nature of the threat to historic sites like the Malbis Plantation.
“In a lot of the places on the list, the locals are doing what they can to get respect for their causes in the community, but sometimes it is hard,” Panhorst said. “The Places in Peril list, backed by the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation, can lend some credibility to the cause. Malbis Plantation Inc. has been supportive of the list. The company owns the land and it seems like they are attempting to shore up their historic assets to the best of their ability.”
Baldwin County Historical Society President Joseph Baroco Jr. said the Malbis Plantation was founded more than 100 years ago by Jason Malbis, an orthodox monk, as a Greek settlement based on monastic values. Baroco said the community was progressive, installing one of the first generator units in the area and running an ice plant, a plant nursery and a cannery as well as paving roads and building a bakery serving both sides of Mobile Bay.
The plantation’s cannery was used to can local produce including tomatoes, eggplant, squash and okra, while the bakery met the needs of local residents and nearby farmers, according to information on the Malbis Plantation website.
Baroco said the Lowe’s home improvement store on Frederick Boulevard just north of U.S. Highway 90 is in the location of the former Malbis General Store restaurant and hotel. He also said the Greek Orthodox Church on State Highway 181 was built in the style of similar churches in Greece. In fact, Baroco said, workers were brought in from Greece to ensure the church looked authentic.
“I think the main purpose for a list like this is to try to keep all these historic buildings from being harmed by development creeping in,” Baroco said. “It is a very historical place and we would like to see it preserved.”
The Places in Peril list is used to bring public attention to the preservation of what the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation calls important pieces of the state’s heritage. Nominations for the 2015 list were made by local organizations wishing to preserve important historic places in their communities.
“We are trying to publicize the nature of the threat to some of these places,” Panhorst said. “We want to help the public to understand the needs of the Malbis Plantation and other historical places in the state.”
Panhorst said the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation took responsibility for the Places in Peril list this year after the state reduced appropriations for the Alabama Historical Commission. The organizations previously published the list together from 1994 through 2014.
The complete 2015 Places in Peril list includes, in addition to Malbis Plantation in Daphne, Braxton Bragg Comer Bridge in Scottsboro, Forney Hall in Jacksonville, Sadler House and Sadler Cemetery in McCalla and Montgomery Theater/Webber Building in Montgomery. Panhorst said most of the places on the list have received backing from their respective communities.