The bulldozers were in place the night before and the street was cordoned off with parade barricades and hazard tape. Everything was ready for an emergency demolition. Then, at around 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, the westward wall of 522 Dauphin St. came tumbling down.
For many local preservationists, the demolition of the historic Key Loan building highlighted the importance of following the strict rules set out for renovation and redevelopment in the city’s Downtown Development District (DDD) and historic districts. Rules, they say, were not followed in this case. Others, meanwhile, point to the structure’s integrity and the public safety hazard it presented along a busy street, in the heart of the city’s entertainment district.
Despite a more heavy-handed approach to the demolition last month than many expected, the owners plan to “reconstruct” the 1850s-era building, project designer Andrew Dooley said.
“Reconstruction is still in the plans,” he said, despite skepticism from many preservationists who witnessed the demolition’s aftermath. “Everything has been documented. We will be restoring it to its original integrity and will use all of the old materials.”
David Newell, president of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society, said by the looks of it, what happened at 522 Dauphin was a “demolition” not a “deconstruction.”
“Demolition is a wrecking ball,” he said. “Reconstruction is where you’re less intrusive, and where taking pieces apart takes more time. All photographic evidence shows demolition.”
Dooley said the building will be reconstructed with the original bricks and a stucco facade, to the exact dimensions of the old building. He said developers took care to lay pieces of the roofing on top of the more important materials before driving bulldozers over the wreckage to pull down the building’s gable.
“I love old buildings,” Dooley said. “I’m a tree hugger ….”
Tree hugger or not, many question the timing of the building’s partial collapse, which all agree was a possibility when concerns for the building arose in early summer. Attorney and preservationist Palmer Hamilton called the wall’s collapse “suspicious,” and even Downtown Mobile Alliance CEO Elizabeth Stevens said she’d heard rumors people were in the building early in the morning and could have contributed to the wall’s collapse.
“I am very suspicious that wall just spontaneously came down,” Hamilton said. “Something’s fishy.”
Hamilton, the president of the Oakleigh Venture Revolving Fund, said he’s preserved more than 100 buildings and 522 Dauphin St. was in better shape than many of them.
“Clearly, when the entire wall was removed, the building was standing and fine,” he said. “ … that wall could’ve been rebuilt.”
Dooley said he understands the confusion surrounding the falling wall, as bystanders could be seen amid the rubble after the fact, but he added there was no one inside the building that night.
“The building coming down was in nobody’s best financial interest,” he said. “We hated to see it happen.”
Although developers found out about the deficiency shortly after purchasing the Key Loan building and several adjacent buildings on Dauphin, it wasn’t until October that plans for reconstruction began to form, Dooley said. The wall began buckling shortly afterward, Dooley said, which prompted the call for an emergency meeting of the city’s Architectural Review Board last month. As a result, the board granted the demolition request.
“The compromise had become a much bigger deal,” he said.
Newell argued if the owners and developers of 522 Dauphin had been more proactive and dealt with the problem in June, the building would still be standing.
“It lingered for a while and the failure got worse and worse,” he said. “It was roughly six months and it continued to worsen.”
Based on the typical nature of the city’s demolition requests, Stevens said, it was a breakdown of communication and a breakdown of the process.
“Why all these things took place, I can’t answer that,” she said. “I don’t know why. It would be good to figure out.”
She said judging by the volume of phone calls and emails her office received, people “were certainly upset” about the building’s demolition.
“A building like that wouldn’t normally have been demolished,” she said.
Developers have publicly said the plan would be to redevelop the entire block of buildings into an artists’ village. With a recording studio nearby, developers have said they want to reconstruct 522 Dauphin into a place visiting musicians can stay before a performance or a recording. The space would include a practice spot.
Stevens said both the DDD and historic development codes have sections regulating demolition permits. So it’s not impossible to tear down a building. Typically, an applicant must go before the city and the public to provide details.
To that end, Stevens said not every building should be saved, but buildings like the Key Loan should not be torn down.
“It’s not that every building has to be kept,” Stevens said. “We ought to draw a line in the sand that 19th century buildings ought to be kept.”
Given Mobile’s history, she said, it only makes sense that these older buildings must be saved when they can be. They add to the quality of life downtown.
“If we’re going to promote that we’re a 300-year-old city, people expect to see old stuff,” she said.
If a building is demolished, Stevens said, there should be a “plan behind it,” which is why the demolition requirements were adopted.
“Otherwise there’s a blank space,” she said. “What are the redevelopment plans? The new plans might be better than the current ones.”
Demolitions about 30 years ago left much empty space downtown, which has presented a problem. Despite the popularity of redeveloping some of the more historic spaces, the alliance must also promote new construction in order to give the area more of an urban feel.
“The vast majority is not built upon,” Stevens said. “We’ve lost that fabric.”
Stevens said it’s important to have the regulations in place and to follow them, given a large portion of downtown development occurs in existing structures. The DDD and form-based code is in place to allow new construction to knit together more tightly with existing buildings.
Saving the older structures downtown will remain important because even though the future is in new construction, she said, both are required for a vibrant environment.
Two buildings downtown make the HMPS’ list of “Places in Peril,” although there are already plans to redevelop one.
The Kennedy House, circa 1857, was built by Joshua Kennedy and remained in the family until the early 1900s, Mobile Historic Development Commission Director Cart Blackwell said. Most recently, it was used as a meeting place for the local American Legion chapter and had been for more than a generation, he said.
More recently, a local Mardi Gras society purchased the building and plans to make it a meeting hall, Blackwell said.
“They will do credit to the building and they will also do credit to the American Legion, allowing them to continue to have meetings there monthly and throughout the year on special occasions,” he said. “They’re going to restore the building.”
In all, it’s a two-part structure, Blackwell said. There’s the house and an adjoining structure, which the American Legion used as a meeting hall.
“They’re going to keep that later building — it’s a cinderblock structure— but jazz it up … make it fit more in the landscape,” Blackwell said. “So, that’s a happy resolution to that property, one that honors the previous use with the patriotic organization.
But you can’t get much more Mobile than a Mardi Gras association.”
The other “place in peril” is the Chighizola House at 6 S. Franklin St. The structure is currently owned by the Hoffman family and used as a warehouse for their furniture store. There are currently no plans for the building, but the family is always looking for the opportunity to rent it out.
The home, which dates back as far as the 1840s, represents one of the city’s “finest remaining side hall houses,” Blackwell said. Side hall houses were given their name because there was a hallway on one side and rooms on the other.
“Would we all want someone living there? Yes, but they have — everything apparently meets code,” he said. “It’s a wonderful building and the Hoffmans provide a wonderful service — an American success story. It’ll be interesting to see what they decide to do with it.”
There are other structures downtown that are either not considered historic anymore or not on the “places in peril” list. One of those structures is the old Gayfers building, which is a three-part building, Blackwell said.
The original Gayfers building at the corner of Dauphin and Conception streets burned down and was relocated to the old Peerless Laundry building, which is over 100 years old, Blackwell said.
“Later, Gayfers, like Kress, bought other frontages,” he said. They bought another building on Dauphin in the middle of the block -— the one that’s got the mural on it.”
They later bought another building downtown before moving out to the malls on Airport, Blackwell said.
The building with murals at 165 Dauphin St. has been purchased by the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership. The group initially had applied for tax credits to turn the structure into mixed-use, low-income senior apartments. According to the Alabama Housing Finance Authority, the GCHP was denied the credits this year.
GCHP project analyst Michael Hellier wrote in an email message that the group would still like to redevelop the property, but was unable to release any details.
A shell building sits at 108 Dauphin St., across from The Haberdasher, after it was destroyed by fire. A representative for the owners, the Naman family, said they did not wish to comment on the future plans for the building. Blackwell said his office currently has a conservation easement on the façade of the building, dating back to its previous owners. The office no longer seeks those types of easements, he said.
“You had a building that was impacted by fire,” he said. “The shell has remained, which is a good thing. That gives you the intimation of infill. That’s much better than a gaping hole in the center of the block, and that wall was able to be preserved and a building can go behind it.”
Codes and regulations
All structures — historic or not — within the Henry Aaron Loop or downtown are subject to regulations through the DDD. Further, buildings within the area’s three historic districts are subject to greater regulation to ensure the historic nature of structures remain intact, Blackwell said.
“There’s Lower Dauphin commercial, which includes Dauphin Street, a little bit of Conti and St. Francis; DeTonti Square, like around the Richards DAR House; and then Church Street East, which has most of our well-known houses of worship, Christ Church, AME Zion, Government Street [Presbyterian],” he said. “With those you have historic district guidelines.”
The regulations, or guidelines, stipulate everything — from what materials can be used in the redevelopment of a structure to how far from the curb it can be, Blackwell said, and are intended to help preserve the structures. The regulations include several “ingredients,” Blackwell said. One is a building’s location.
“You kind of want the porches to line up, you don’t want something pushed back with a parking lot up front,” he said.
Another is massing.
“Get it where you’ve got ceiling heights about 10 feet and stuff like that,” Blackwell said. “We embrace new materials: Hardie board, insulated glass windows, the whole bag of tricks.”
The idea, he said, is to make it easier for a developer to build new, but for that structure to retain its historic feel. Most approval is done at the staff level, but on occasion — like with demolitions — the Architectural Review Board will have to weigh in, he said. The issues that come before the ARB are: “reconstructions, new construction and major additions you can see,” Blackwell said.
“That’s a good experience because there are a lot of architects on there and they can give cost-saving tips, or say, you’ve got this; this meets the guidelines, but you might want to consider this just because the rainwater is just going to run off, or I’ve used this product before,” he said. “Some of them have been on there quite a long while and they have the experience of other projects, saying ‘we’ve tried this before, I can see why you’re going down this road, but you might consider …’ They’re looking at does it impair, does it not impair. That’s the big thing.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).