To travel from the Mobile River west through our fair city is to experience an architectural timeline, featuring the succeeding periods and moods of Gulf Coast domestic building – from Creole practicality, Greek Revival high formality, Gothic romanticism, Queen Anne exuberance, Craftsman comfort and ranch simplicity to the contemporary mansion inspired by Renaissance Italy. Each of these diverse styles of architecture and living owes much to both historical precedents and national tastes, but the 19th-century designs especially were also cleverly adapted to local climatic realities. Taken in toto, Mobile’s historic houses, whether erected almost 200 years ago or yesterday, present an architectural panoply worthy of celebration and respect.
Until the 1830s, Mobile’s limits did not extend much beyond Broad Street, and virtually everybody lived in what is today downtown. A series of 19th-century fires and 20th-century urban renewal projects obliterated almost all of the city’s earliest housing stock, but isolated examples remain. One of the best preserved is the Michael Portier House at 307 Conti St., just across from Cathedral Square.
Portier (1795 – 1859), a native of France, was the city’s first Catholic bishop, and not long after he settled into his comfortable abode, he reflected on how he came to be there. “It was time, in 1834, to fix my stay in Mobile, ” he wrote in a letter to Rome, “and to give to its bishop and to its clergy an honorable residence and a handy one, without losing sight, however, of that evangelical simplicity which we preach. The Episcopal house which is composed of 10 rooms cost me … $7, 000.”
Unfortunately, the records do not definitively reveal whether Portier’s residence was built from the ground up or was simply an enlarged and much-improved residence built earlier. Whichever the case, the house today reflects the strong architectural trends of early American Mobile – Creole, Federal and Neoclassical – all subtly and beautifully blended.
GREEK REVIVAL/ITALIANATE HIGH FORMALITY
By the eve of the Civil War, the city had spread west to about Catherine Street, with a sprinkling of country houses, some quite grand, along Dauphin Street and Springhill Avenue. Among these, none is more magnificent than the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion, handsomely sited among a grove of live oaks at 1906 Springhill Ave.
Built in 1855 for a North Carolina native and judge named John Bragg, the house represents an inspired combination of the Greek Revival and Italianate styles known as bracketed Greek Revival. In addition to its soaring exterior columns and bracketed eaves, the house features a palatial interior – 14 rooms, 16-foot ceilings, a 50-foot parlor broken by three arches supported on freestanding columns, and a wide, curving staircase out in the hall.
Not everyone could live in such splendor, of course, but even more modest residences are notable for their sophistication and elegance. One such is the Macy House at 1569 Dauphin St., an 1867 Gothic Revival cupcake with all the hallmarks of the style – board-and-batten siding, decorative jigsaw barge boards and porch trim, hood molds over windows, and a pointed second-story window. In fact, the house may have been adapted from Andrew Jackson Downing’s classic Carpenter Gothic treatise, “Architecture of Country Houses.”
QUEEN ANNE EXUBERANCE
By the turn of the 20th century, Government Street had emerged as a jaw-dropping corridor of high-style mansions leading out from the downtown, and of those that survive, none exhibits Victorian excess as markedly as the Tacon-Vitalo House at 1216 Government St. Erected in 1901 for Henry Tacon, secretary and treasurer of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, this house is one of the last Queen Anne homes built in Mobile. It’s got everything one would expect – complex rooflines; wraparound porches with columns, balustrades, and drop friezes; balconied dormers; and, perhaps the home’s most distinctive feature, a two-stage corner turret rising from the second story with a tall onion-shaped roof.
Mobile continued to stretch farther west, and by the 1920s, Victorian overstatement had succumbed to the informal and comfortable dictates of the Craftsman or Bungalow style. In a city blessed with so many fine 19th-century houses, it’s easy to overlook Mobile’s bungalows, but there are many good examples, like the Barney-Host House (1912) at 1661 Dauphin St. on the corner of Reed Avenue. With its jerkinhead gable roof, mixture of weatherboard and fish-scale shingles, bay windows and deeply recessed side porch, this house radiates coziness and charm.
Once full suburbanization arrived during the 1950s, Mobile’s houses became less regionally nuanced. The invention of air conditioning allowed architects and builders to ignore the effects of the Gulf Coast’s searing summers in their designs, and the ranch-style houses then popular nationwide became the norm here.
While few people find much to admire about the ranch style today, there are superior examples in Mobile. The Brigance House (1955) at 1004 Hillcrest Lane in the Sky Ranch subdivision, designed by Mobile architect Arch Winter, looks like a set from the AMC hit series “Mad Men.” One would not be surprised if January Jones suddenly appeared at the front door of this gem, which hugs its spacious lot with long horizontal lines. Large sliding-glass doors along the walls and staggered cinder block wing walls create an intriguing presence at the curb. However, Mobilians have usually preferred their houses to be more traditional in form.
HISTORICALLY INSPIRED MANSION
By the 1990s, savvy local architects knew what to do. This era is perhaps most notable for the large mansions that popped up around the Spring Hill area and out into the county’s western precincts. While some of these lack distinction, others are outstanding historical replications. The Eyrich House (1993), on Fairfax Lane, just north of Airport Boulevard, is among the most interesting. Designed by L. Craig Roberts, the house is a Palladian glory with exquisite proportions. Staring at this home from below, it’s hard to believe that the pilaster capitals are 4 1/2 feet tall, or that each cast stone urn along the roofline is 5 feet and bolted all the way through the house to the ground.
What kind of houses will future Mobilians build for themselves? Given current climatic and economic realities, green architecture bids fair to be the next great trend, and no doubt we will soon see interesting examples springing from our sandy soil.
John S. Sledge is a published author and local architectural historian. His most recent book is “The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile.”
John S. Sledge