Ask McGehee

After sitting vacant for more than 40 years, the southwest corner of Conception and St. Francis streets will reportedly be the site of a new Hilton property. More than 100 years ago, another hotel was built on that corner. It too filled a lot that had been empty for decades.

In March of 1905, the Mobile Register announced that a new hotel was to be erected on the western side of Bienville Square by Orville F. Cawthon. It was described as “a modern classic design … six stories, a palm garden restaurant and solarium enclosed with glass on the roof. The entire first floor will be devoted to large and handsome lobbies, dining rooms, billiard and pool room, buffets and kitchen.”

The original Battle House had burned just a month earlier, and Cawthon obviously saw an opportunity to fill that void with his new hotel. Construction projects apparently moved a lot faster at the start of the 20th century. In April of 1905, it was announced that the fireproof structure would be complete within 10 months. The Cawthon was open by September of 1906 – two years before the rebuilt Battle House.

In the rush to complete The Cawthon, the planned rooftop solarium had been omitted. In January of 1908, the enclosed roof garden known as the Vineyard Café debuted with much fanfare and a chef imported from Chicago. Its interior, described as a “bower of beauty, ” was decorated with arbors and clusters of grapes. The flurry of publicity about the new space may have been intended to eclipse the excitement over the Battle House, which was nearing completion.

- Sponsors -

Although often referred to as “Dr. Orville, ” Cawthon was a druggist, with a store on the northwest corner of Conception and Dauphin streets. He invested shrewdly in real estate over the years, in addition to owning the major interest in the Stonewall Cotton Mills, south of Meridian, Miss.

Cawthon’s wealth could not prevent tragedies in his life. He lost his daughter, Clara, when she was 25 and son Robert when he was 30. He gave the slate-covered spire of Trinity Episcopal Church in memory of Clara and a stained glass window there in memory of Robert.

Cawthon’s 35-year-old namesake ruled as King Felix III during the 1905 Mardi Gras celebration. Orville Sr., justifiably proud of the event, commissioned a full-length oil portrait of Orville Jr. and placed it in the new hotel’s lobby. Arriving guests would have no doubt as to where America’s Mardi Gras originated.

At the time of the completion of the hotel, Orville Sr. was living with his son and married daughter Estelle in a 29-room mansion that still stands at 1005 Government St. The patriarch died in 1911, at age 82, and Orville Jr. took over the real estate investments.

When Estelle’s husband died in 1935, she closed the first floor of that house. For 20 years, the brother and sister lived above a series of rooms eerily draped in white sheets, windows shuttered against the daylight. Following his sister’s death in 1958, Orville Jr. moved into his hotel and died there in 1962. The passing of the 92 year old garnered front-page coverage, with the Register noting that he was the last of his line. His considerable estate passed on to Wilmer Hall, an Episcopal orphanage.

When the Cawthon, once advertised as “Mobile’s Favorite Hotel, ” closed in 1971, a newspaper reporter wrote “its charm and grace have faded into a state of abandonment.” When wreckers came two years later, the paper chalked it up to progress, stating that it would soon be replaced with new construction. After 42 years, that may finally be a reality.

Text by Tom McGehee

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!