Photo | Daniel Anderson
Oakleigh is open for tours for $10 admission. The house is split up by time period, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century.
The house that helped lead its first owner to financial ruin is facing its own money issues, as its operators have pleaded with members of the Mobile City Council for more funding.
The Historic Mobile Preservation Society (HMPS) has threatened to close the doors of the historic Oakleigh House and museum if councilors and others don’t commit to more funding for the antebellum structure.
The museum cannot support itself on the $30,000 it currently receives in the form of a performance contract from the city’s budget, HMPS President Herndon Inge has said in previous interviews.
The society is looking for an infusion of about $40,000 in public money, which would allow the house and museum to operate on a “bare-bones” budget. Board member Tom McGehee said he’s hopeful the city could take over the home’s utility bills, like it does with the Mobile History Museum.
McGehee said Oakleigh was the first museum dedicated to Mobile history. He called it a “trendsetter,” adding that the standalone history museum came about a decade later.
Board secretary Greg Reynolds said the house has seen an outpouring of positive support since the closure announcement was made. The board has pushed back by two weeks an Oct. 1 deadline to close the museum in the hopes of drumming up even more support.
Reynolds was part of a group of supporters who spoke to councilors during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. On behalf of the board, he asked for more public support for the museum.
In his comments, Reynolds called Oakleigh “truly a landmark” and said the board has not received any positive feedback from the administration in about a month, when it was suggested the city could pay the museum’s utilities.
Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch said the administration initially reached out to Inge about a fiscal year 2019 performance contract for $30,000, but he refused to sign it unless funding was increased.
Wesch said the museum is in no danger of closing. He added that the city would take over the operations from the board if they couldn’t make the $30,000 work.
Trinity Walker, a member of the Oakleigh Belles ambassador program, told councilors the house helped introduce her to Mobile. As a California native, she was unfamiliar with the South and Mobile’s history until she moved here with her family.
“Oakleigh helped me acclimate to Mobile,” she said.
At a preconference meeting, Council Vice President Levon Manzie, who represents the Oakleigh neighborhood, said he’s sensitive to the community on the issue and thinks the museum is important for tourism. He said he supported a path forward that would allow the museum to stay open.
Money problems for Oakleigh aren’t new. In 2011, Marilyn Culpepper, HMPS director, pleaded guilty to stealing more than $25,000 in funds from the society, multiple media organizations reported at the time.
Neither Reynolds nor McGehee said they were on the board at the time of the Culpepper plea, but McGehee remembers it was a surprise. He added that the issue isn’t relevant to the struggles now.
But the timing of the theft couldn’t have helped as funding from the city began to be cut about seven years ago. At that time, the funding dropped from about $100,000 per year to $30,000, Inge said in a previous interview. Inge was out of town this week and did not respond to requests for comment.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s proposed 2019 budget cut 10 percent more from the budget, for a total of $27,000. However, the council replaced that funding in the official budget it passed in the last meeting of September.
In the statement, HMPS said the city has slacked off on its obligation to maintain the property since then as well. The statement cited several examples of issues, from the HVAC system to the front porch and landscaping.
The board also fears the Stimpson administration may try to sell the building if the museum closes, but members of the board have recently walked back some of those statements. City spokeswoman Laura Byrne has said in a statement that no decision has been made yet on the home’s future.
“Our goal is to ensure a successful pathway forward for the Oakleigh House and the surrounding neighborhood,” Byrne wrote.
The house, located in the middle of what is now known as the Oakleigh Garden District in midtown, faced a similar fate in the mid-1800s when it went into foreclosure after its original owner could not overcome $20,000 in debt.
James Roper, a slave trade broker and slave owner, built the house in 1833 as a getaway from city life, museum manager Marye Newman said. The area now known as Oakleigh, which sits across Broad Street from what is considered downtown Mobile, would’ve been outside the city limits at that time. Roper bought 33 acres of land that stretched from what is now Government Street to George Street and then down to Rapier and Selma streets.
“He wasn’t making very smart financial decisions,” Newman said. “For one thing, he probably spent a lot more money on this house than he needed to. The crown molding, all these beautiful, wide pine-plank floors.
“He could’ve made it a little smaller,” she added. “This was actually his second home, so he didn’t really need it at all.”
Items in the house include a pair of documents signed by Roper, which validated the sale of three slaves, a 30-year-old man and two teenagers, Newman said. The documents confirm the men were born in the U.S. because it would have been after the international slave trade was banned, she said.
To make Roper’s financial issues worse, Oakleigh was completed around the time of one of the worst bank collapses in U.S. history, Newman said.
Roper had a “a number of concerns,” or jobs, architectural historian John Sledge said. For instance, he had a brickmaking facility on the grounds of the home, where the sunken garden currently sits.
In addition to his work in the slave trade, Roper owned 18 slaves at the height of his wealth and most worked as brickmasons, Newman said. Roper was a cotton factor, or a broker who sold the product for plantation owners. He also took out a number of business loans, she said.
All of these activities culminated in Roper losing the house less than 20 years after having it built. He would’ve lost it sooner, but his brother-in-law helped keep him afloat with a loan, Newman said. Roper died in 1856.
The name “Oakleigh,” which Roper gave his home, became synonymous with the neighborhood that would one day grow up around it. There is a debate, however, over how Roper arrived at the name Oakleigh. The word “leigh” means meadow in Gaelic, translating the home’s name to “oak meadow,” which would have fit with the area, Sledge said.
“That was typical of the early 19th century,” he said. “People would come up with romantic names. Everybody who had any pretension to grandeur would name their house.”
However, more recent research from HMPS board member Robert Allen indicates the name could’ve been borrowed from a plantation Roper saw on his way to Mobile from Virginia, Newman said.
The Irwin family would buy the house in 1850 for $4,525, after it had been previously rented, Newman said. One of the stops on the home tour is a bedroom belonging to the Irwins’ youngest daughter. She died just two weeks before her wedding at the age of 19, after contracting typhoid fever and salmonella poisoning at the same time, Newman said. The room is meant to teach visitors of 19th century mourning practices. It is adorned with a wreath made of human hair and a traditional all-black Victorian mourning gown.
“It has made several small children cry, but the adults love it,” Newman said. “I always warn the children before they come in, or the parents of the kids, at least. This is a very popular room.”
The home would remain a residence, even during the Civil War, Sledge said. It was spared damage due to how well protected Mobile was during the time.
“Mobile was one of the most heavily fortified cities in the Confederacy,” Sledge said. “It had three lines of earthworks going around it. Oakleigh was within those, but was probably uncomfortably close to them should an invasion have actually occurred. That’s why when the federals actually got here, they considered the city too fortified to attack.”
Many of the city’s oak trees had been cut down for “fields of fire,” which gave Mobile a rugged and unattractive look, Sledge said.
“So, it would’ve been a raw-looking place, exposed and dirty,” he said. “So the house was never directly under attack. Of course, after the war you had a large amount of federal soldiers here — many of them black troops — as occupiers. There were barracks in that vicinity, where soldiers would’ve been.”
Another reason the house survived the war was thanks to the creativity of one of its residents. Margaret Owen used her British citizenship to claim Oakleigh was foreign soil. She hung a Union Jack and threatened British involvement if the walls were breached, said Zoe Gray, a member of the Oakleigh Belles ambassador program.
The home would stay in the Irwin family until 1916. The second generation of the Irwin family were very socially active, which makes for an interesting part of the home tour for visitors, Newman said.
“So, if you picture Oakleigh when you’re walking up it’s all these big parties and all this entertaining,” she said. “A lot of that is because of this couple.”
One of the most famous visitors to Oakleigh was President James Garfield, who stopped by, historians believe, while campaigning in about 1880, Newman said. He even drank a mint julep on the porch, she said.
Among some of the Irwin family items on display at the house is a vase T.K. Irwin was given as a going away gift from the Strikers, a Mardi Gras society of which he and his brother were founding members, Newman said. One of the rules in the Strikers is it’s a bachelor organization and T.K. was getting married.
The living quarters of the home would have mainly been in what is now the second floor. What is now the bottom floor was filled in segments, starting with two wings added by the Irwins.
T.K.’s daughter would sell the house in 1916 to the Cole family. She sold the house, Newman said, because she didn’t like the heat and had moved to Maine. The Coles would fill out the rest of the first floor in the 1920s, Newman said. The Cole family lived in the home from 1916 to 1927, when it was sold to the Dennistons.
Robert Denniston, who still lives in Mobile, resided at Oakleigh until he was around 20 years old, Newman said. The Dennistons sold it to the Greek Orthodox Church in 1945, before its final private owner bought it.
Oakleigh was sold to the city in 1955. Admission for the museum was set not to exceed $1.50, according to an Aug. 18, 1955, lease agreement between the city and HMPS.
The city purchased the home during a period of “mythmaking and celebration” of the Old South, Sledge said.
“Oakleigh was meant to showcase the city’s heritage,” he said. “The same way the Azalea Trail Maids are still showcased at home tours to convey the opinion that Mobile is an old, gracious city and not a bustling new boom town like Birmingham or Charlotte.“
Admission to the museum is now $10 per person, with discounts for children, active military and others.
Oakleigh was designed in the Greek Revival style so popular for homes and other structures of the era, Sledge said.
“To me what’s the embodiment of the Greek Revival is this borrowing of classical architectural elements,” he said. “They look like little Greek temples. This wasn’t just in the South, you saw Greek Revival all over the country, really all over the western world.”
What was so appealing at the time about old Greek culture, Sledge said, is that everyone was learning Greek in school and “democracy was a thing that flourished in Athens.”
“It was very much a national trend, but what you saw or see with examples like Oakleigh is it is fine-tuned to the climate,” he said. “You wouldn’t see that, for instance, in Cincinnati, or the Hudson Valley. It really was a response to the climate.”
If the home is forced to close, the popular volunteer and ambassador program called the Oakleigh Belles would continue at a new venue, coordinator Brooke Allen said. The program would be forced to move to the Richards Daughters of the American Revolution House downtown.
The program started in 2008, designed for high school girls to “foster a love for history.” The belles wear modern takes on historical dresses while they serve as guides at the mansion.
Allen said registration is open to Mobile-area girls in grades 8 to 11. They must first fill out an application and then are interviewed by a panel of three to five judges. Applicants must have a nonweighted GPA of 3.0 or higher. There are five to 15 spots open each year. Since Allen has been part of it, 50 girls have gone through the program.
Brooke Leslie, a 15-year-old sophomore from Davidson High School, is in her second year in the program. It has allowed her to learn more about Mobile history and meet new people. She said she would like to pursue a career in the medical field.
Traci Tran is a 17-year-old senior from Theodore High School. As a belle, she takes her job to help preserve Mobile history and help others seriously. The belles program has helped her communicate better with others. She said she plans to attend dental school.
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