Mobile seems to have a history of becoming dissatisfied with its public meeting spaces. Each generation has touted a new auditorium or meeting space only to have the next generation find fault. The Temperance Hall of 1854 became a skating rink, for example, when the rooftop auditorium of the Battle House opened in 1908.
In 1922 the Mobile Register excitedly discussed the new Scottish Rite Cathedral as providing “an immense auditorium for public meetings of a civic nature or for conventions of various kinds.” However, by 1929, civic leaders had apparently soured on the idea of having conventions in an Egyptian temple. That November an ambitious plan was announced to build a combination “civic center, auditorium and armory” which its promoter assured would “take care of American Legion events, conventions, Mardi Gras, grand opera and attract tourists.” The facility would be “self-sustaining” and built above space that could be leased for shops and “motor car garages.”
In retrospect, such an announcement a month after the stock market crashed was optimistic at best, and not surprisingly the idea was abandoned. By 1945 talk resumed about the benefits of a great civic auditorium, but funding never materialized. After all, wasn’t Fort Whiting’s auditorium sufficient?
Plans for a new auditorium were again announced in 1960. That spring the engineering firm of Palmer & Baker prepared a study for the city outlining the need, as well as choices of location. The structure was described as “a far step into the cultural development of the community.” The planned auditorium would be designed for use as “a convention hall, exhibit space, and as a sports arena for boxing, wrestling, basketball, ice hockey, ice shows, Mardi Gras coronations, the Junior Miss pageants, and big-name dance band dances.”
Scouting Out Locations
The bigger question was location. The report weighed the pros and cons of three choices. The first was on St. Joseph Street in an area bounded by Congress, Royal, State and Joachim streets. It was convenient, the report noted, but some expensive real estate would have to be purchased. Plus, the area was prone to flooding.
The next site studied was Church Street bounded by Claiborne, Canal and Lawrence streets. Although it was described as having “excellent access from all parts of the city, ” it was also “substantially more remote from the Central Business District and 10 blocks away from the Battle House.” The report also noted that this choice would require the relocation of 230 families whose homes stood in the way.
The engineering firm preferred the third choice of “Water Street, immediately adjacent to the financial district.” Prone to flooding, the facility would have to be raised, but this offered space for covered parking. This area held the remnants of the city’s warehouse district (which engineers termed termed “a commercial slum area”) that would happily be replaced by the new development.
Local author Julian Lee Rayford wrote of this option in a letter to the Register: “The truth is Mobile has never taken any pride in its waterfront. An auditorium on Water Street would give our people a chance to point with pride to a project that would make us quit being a minor league city.”
After the choices were presented, City Commissioner Charles Hackmeyer argued for a location in the suburbs. His recommendation was south of a newly extended Dauphin Street, near the overpass at the beltline highway, which was under construction. Property owner Edgar Delaney, who was developing the adjoining Springdale Plaza, thought this a fine idea. When the other commissioners balked at this location, Hackmeyer decided that perhaps the money might be better spent on drainage issues around town instead.
Mobile's Most Controversial Building
In November of 1960, the commissioners announced that the facility would be built on Church Street. A benefit of this choice was the millions of dollars being pumped into the urban renewal program sponsored by the federal government. Soon, 230 families sought new housing as their former homes, branded as substandard, were razed or moved, all to make way for a 2, 000-vehicle parking lot and the new auditorium complex.
Commissioner George McNally criticized the facility’s design during a tour in 1963, complaining that its façade was blocked by a row of 19th century homes on Church Street that had been allowed to remain. He was among a group that had promoted the demolition of all structures between Government Street and the new auditorium, in order to allow its visibility. His recommendation to rebuild the complex to face the parking lot was also ignored.
By the time the facility was ready to open its doors in 1964, the city had settled five lawsuits and changed architects. A reporter termed the auditorium “the most controversial building ever put up in Mobile.”
Today that controversial building sits empty most of each year. What conferences and conventions do come to town seem to prefer the waterfront Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center, built roughly in the location recommended by Palmer & Baker and Julian Lee Rayford in 1960.
Recently Mayor Stimpson has warned Mardi Gras organizations to find another venue for 2016. While he has stated the property needs to be “repurposed, ” he has yet to propose demolition of the structure which the Mobile Register has termed an eyesore.
Text by Tom McGehee