Ask McGehee

What is the history of the property known as ‘Cannongate’ on Spring Hill Avenue?

The Waterman residence, known as Cannongate, as seen in the 1960s. Photo courtesy the Waterman family

The name of those upscale condominiums predates their construction by well over a century. By 1854, a house fronted by a cannon stood here and was occupied by a physician named Solomon Mordecai.

Mordecai had moved to Mobile in 1823 to set up his medical practice in the growing port city. To his dismay, he discovered he was one of no less than 10 physicians vying for patients. According to family lore, Mordecai got the fastest horse and buggy he could manage and raced about town. Mobilians got the impression he was rushing to tend to his patients and began seeking him to be their doctor.

In 1854, he was living with his wife, the former Caroline Waller, and nine children in the fashionable suburb of “Summerville,” which included residents such as Colonel Lorenzo Wilson in “Ashland” and the Braggs over at what today is known as the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion.  

Also located in the vicinity was the Visitation Monastery, which had been established in the 1830s. On the night of May 7, 1854, the monastery caught fire. One of the first neighbors to respond was Mordecai, who joined with others to help remove furnishings as the buildings rapidly went up in flames. As the small chapel was engulfed in smoke and flames, Mordecai rushed in and climbed up to remove the sisters’ prized crucifix, which today is housed in the Sacred Heart Chapel.

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Mordecai died at Cannongate in 1869 at the age of 76, and after his widow’s death in 1876, the property passed out of the family.  By the 1920s, it was occupied by William Middleton, an auditor for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, but by the publication of the 1936 city directory, the address was listed as vacant for the next two years.

Cannongate’s lush, classical gardens made it the perfect spot for The Mobile Garden Club’s annual meeting. Image courtesy The Mobile Garden Club

The Waterman Connection

In 1939, number 2404 Spring Hill Avenue was occupied by Annie Louise Waterman whose late husband had founded Waterman Steamship Company in 1919. The Watermans had previously lived in Ashland Place as well as on Government Street before moving into a house on Selma Street in the 1920s. John B. Waterman died in 1937 and never saw just how big the Waterman firm would grow.

The widow Waterman rebuilt and greatly enlarged the house but kept the cannon at her gate facing Spring Hill Avenue. She hired Joe Lambert, a landscape architect from Dallas, to design her gardens. Lambert’s firm would eventually design impressive properties in 38 states and on the island of Jamaica, and was famous for what were termed “classical, romantic gardens.”

The rolling acreage was planted with azaleas among the ancient oaks and included water jets and carefully tended flower beds. As those gardens developed, the Waterman Building in downtown Mobile was completed in 1947, and by the early 1950s, the firm was the largest privately owned steamship company in the world. Airline operations for both passengers and freight had also been added to the mix.

Waterman died in August of 1953, and Cannongate became the residence of her son, Carroll B. Waterman, until his death in 1957. His widow, Helen would occupy the property until her death in 1978.

By the late 1970s, the costs of maintaining such an estate had skyrocketed, and the power bills alone were astronomical. The property stood vacant until a developer obtained it and demolished the Waterman home. Portions of the house were salvaged and used by the developer elsewhere.

A series of townhouse condominiums were constructed, and the entrance was reconfigured to Chidester Avenue to the west. The cannon still guards the gate, but there is nothing left of Waterman’s prized gardens.

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