Ask McGehee

Known as the Guesnard House, the brick Italianate structure has occupied that corner since 1859. Its architect was Scottish-born David Cumming Jr., whose sister, Kate, was the most famous nurse of the Confederacy. His only other known local commission was the 1853 Gothic Revival St. John’s Episcopal Church, formerly on South Dearborn Street.

The Guesnard family had fled the bloody revolt in St. Dominigue (modern day Haiti) at the start of the 19th century and landed first in Philadelphia where Theodore Guesnard married Mary Angelique Herpin in 1814. Theodore ultimately took his wife and children to Mobile where they appear on the 1830 census.

Mobile city directories list Guesnard as both a “goldsmith” and “working jeweler” throughout the 1830s and into the 1840s, with a shop on Conception Street. In 1854, Theodore became a founding member of the Can’t Get Away Club, an organization devoted to assisting stranded victims of yellow fever epidemics.

By 1844, Theodore Jr. began to appear in city directories. His occupation was given as “Segar Dealer” and “Tobacconist, ” with a shop on Royal Street. From the looks of his Jackson Street home, it is apparent that Junior was prosperous. Americans in the 19th century were taking up tobacco in record numbers – for smoking as well as chewing.

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How Theodore Guesnard Jr. selected his architect is a mystery. The spacious house Cumming designed served as Guesnard’s home until his death sometime in the late 1880s. Afterwards, his daughter, Marie, and her husband, John Craft, lived there.

Craft was the proprietor of Craft & Co., a firm that wholesaled groceries, produce and liquors, and he later served as a state senator who fought against the convict labor system. He was credited with making improvements in Mobile’s port and helping establish the lucrative fruit trade with Central America. 

In 1906, Craft began a 25-year battle to improve state roads and was later honored for his leadership in “taking Alabama out of the mud.” Craft Highway was named for him.

Sen. Craft presided over the Mobile SPCA for three decades, as the group worked for animal welfare laws and to protect the public from rabies. After his 1936 death, his niece, Ida Pique, remained in the house on Jackson Street and served as a vice president of that organization.

By the end of World War II, the Guesnard House had become a rooming house, and commercial intrusion rapidly made the downtown area less attractive for residential use. By 1950, a row of storefronts lined Jackson Street, and in 1955 the stately Guesnard House suffered the indignity of becoming a warehouse for an adjoining firm that offered an array of floor tile, wall coverings and “acoustical material.”

City directories between 1959 and 1964 list the address as vacant. The following year, Government Street Presbyterian Church obtained it for additional classroom space. Had it not been for the action of the church  nearly 50 years ago, the entire block would likely be under asphalt.

Today, the youth of the church is raising funds for a major restoration of this historic structure into a center for their activities. The future of those young people and the Guesnard House looks bright.

text by Tom McGehee • Photo by Mary Beth Lursen

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