Ask McGehee

Generations of visitors to the Port City's signature antebellum museum home have been told that the little white house, above, was once a detached kitchen or that it had housed slaves. Even the American Buildings Survey in the 1930s termed the modest structure “Slave Quarters.” Now, it turns out that such a description is incorrect.

In 2013, the Historic Mobile Preservation Society began restoration on it with plans to interpret the lives of the people who worked at Oakleigh in the decades following the end of the Civil War. As that process proceeded, it became evident that this structure was never a kitchen. (For one, its very sturdy construction seemed to surpass that of any other backyard service building in Mobile.)

Lauren Vanderbijl, a historic preservation consultant hired by the society, had been doing research with results that surprised her employers. The first discovery was made in talking with architectural historians who, after studying its construction, declared the building to date after the Civil War. So much for “slave quarters.”

While looking at 19th-century maps on file at the Mobile Public Library, she discovered a grouping of 10 buildings of a similar size in the neighborhood. These were labeled “U.S. Barracks.”

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An Occupied City

When Mobile surrendered in the spring of 1865, swarms of northern soldiers arrived to occupy the Port City. Although several of the city’s finest mansions were seized to house high-ranking officers, the lower-ranking enlisted men needed shelter beyond tents. Thus such military barracks were probably constructed before the next winter.

Northern soldiers remained in Mobile for more than a decade, and their barracks were abandoned after their departure. Research has not yet completely determined the fate of all those barracks, although many may have been disassembled for building materials. While research is ongoing, Vanderbijl, who uncovered a series of maps of the area and a deed book for the barracks, believes that the owners of the Oakleigh home moved the Cook's House from its original location to their backyard.

A 20th-century Move

Dr. and Mrs. Hebert Cole purchased Oakleigh in 1916 and are credited with moving the building to its current location. The Coles and the home’s subsequent owner, Harold S. Denniston, apparently believed the little structure far older than it was, and the story just continued through the years.

The building has had a number of uses in recent decades. In the 1970s, it was used as a gift shop for Oakleigh. It has held the offices of the Friends of Magnolia Cemetery as well as the Mobile Tree Commission. In more recent years, it was used for storage and allowed to deteriorate.

The building is now designed to reflect the lives of the workers at Oakleigh in the post-Civil War era. Despite the newest research, plans still call for the soon-to-be restored building to be called the Cook’s House.

May 8 – 10: The Cook's House Grand Opening

300 Oakleigh Place,

10 a.m. – 4 p.m. The Historic Mobile Preservation Society opens the Cook's House to the public. The $10 admission fee includes the Historic Oakleigh Tour.

Text by Tom McGehee

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