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What Downtown luxury hotel burned, just before opening its doors?

The never-opened Greek Revival showplace, Government Street Hotel, as it looked before fire destroyed it. Photo courtesy James H. Dakin Collection, New Orleans Public Library

Surely one of this city’s greatest architectural tragedies was the loss of the Government Street Hotel in 1839. This Greek Revival showplace was designed by New York-born architect Charles B. Dakin, in partnership with his brother, James, and James Gallier. Among the architects’ surviving Mobile structures are Government Street Presbyterian Church and Barton Academy.

America in the 1830s saw a rush to build modern hotels, all of which were designed in the fashionable Greek Revival style. The first, dating to 1829, was Boston’s Tremont House, which boasted running water, indoor plumbing, free soap and the novelty of bell boys. 

New York’s Astor House opened on Broadway in 1836 and was that city’s first true luxury hotel. It featured 309 rooms with gas lighting. Located in that city’s finest residential district, it would draw celebrities for decades.

In February 1861, Abraham Lincoln was a guest at Astor House en route to his inauguration. A month later, future Admiral Raphael Semmes stopped in as he sought ships to buy for the planned Confederate Navy. Semmes would be a guest here under very different circumstances following his arrest in 1865.

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The St. Charles

Closer to home, construction began in 1835 on the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. A group of investors hired Gallier with instructions to create the world’s finest hotel. When it opened in 1837, it was the tallest building in New Orleans thanks to a gleaming white dome, second in size only to that atop the U.S. Capitol.  

An octagonal barroom on the ground floor could accommodate 1,000 men at a time while the ballroom above was considered one of the most beautiful rooms in the nation. The second-floor lobby held a marble statue of George Washington while a spiral staircase connected the three floors above. In addition, visitors could access a gallery surrounding the dome for a view stretching for miles. 

A New Hotel

Mobile’s luxury hotel in the early 1830s was the three-story brick Mansion House Hotel located on the southeast corner of Royal and Conti streets. Its 100-foot-long dining room had tall windows on each side and boasted a grand chandelier and impressive paintings in gilt frames. One of those was reportedly a life-size portrait of George Washington.

The city’s population exploded in the 1830s as new residents from as far away as New England flooded in. By 1836, a group of investors hired Dakin (who had briefly worked with Gallier on the plans for the St. Charles Hotel) to design a great hotel for Mobile.

Paying obvious homage to the St. Charles, Dakin designed a rectangular Greek Revival structure on the northeast corner of Government and Royal streets, topped with an impressive dome.  

Visitors arriving by boat at the foot of Government Street would surely have been impressed by the view west, taking in three gleaming white-columned structures: the new hotel under construction, Government Street Presbyterian Church and, in the distance, Barton Academy. 

Construction Stops

The floors of the hotel had been laid and the roof was in place by 1837, but a national economic panic brought construction to a halt. Soon after, British author and journalist James Silk Buckingham began a grand American tour and had a stop in Mobile. Upon observing the hotel, he described it as “much larger and certainly more handsome than New York’s Astor House or the Tremont House in Boston.” 

In October 1839, Mobile suffered two devastating fires. The second, which occurred October 9, began in the Mansion House Hotel and spread south down Royal Street, engulfing the unfinished Government Street Hotel.

Newspapers around the South reported the destruction, with one reporter describing the ruins as “desolate, but presenting a certain grandeur, even in its ruin.” The New Orleans Picayune reported that “only the walls and lofty arches of the interior remain.” On October 12, Mobile’s Board of Aldermen passed a resolution declaring those desolate ruins “a nuisance” and demanded their removal. 

The Battle House Arrives

It would be a decade before Mobile’s economy was booming again and another great hotel planned. In November 1852, the first Battle House Hotel opened its doors. The hotel’s architect was none other than Isaiah Rogers, the one who started the luxury hotel trend by designing both the Tremont House and the Astor House.  

While the Battle House was still under construction, a kitchen fire destroyed New Orleans’ famed St. Charles Hotel, just 16 years after its completion. Mobile’s original Battle House would have a far longer run before being lost to a spectacular blaze in 1905. Rebuilt in 1908, the hotel would experience many redesigns, renovations and owners on the path to its current state.

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