Ask McGehee: A “Warehouse District” in Mobile?

While it was not officially called the warehouse district, there was, beginning in the 19th century, a small city of warehouses between Water Street and the river, north of Conti Street. Buildings of all sizes and descriptions lined Water, Commerce and Front Street which actually fronted the river.

Period photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s reveal that Front Street was lined with two-, three- and four-story brick buildings, many with iron galleries and balconies overlooking the river. Railroad tracks belonging to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad were centered on Commerce Street. Water Street bridged the area to downtown Mobile.

Photos show a variety of buildings and architectural styles. Some were brick, while others were plastered or trimmed with rusticated granite. There were cast iron columns, cast iron facades and the familiar look of lacy iron galleries and balconies.

The Rise

City directories at the end of the 19th century reveal that each street was filled with a variety of businesses that would have teemed with activity in a port city. They indicate that the blocks were dominated by warehouses for cotton and the offices of the men who made and lost fortunes on it. The area was at one time dubbed “the English Channel” for the numerous British cotton merchants at work here.

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Big wholesale firms carrying such founders’ names as Cunningham Hardware, Barney-Cavanuagh and McGowin-Lyons. Big wholesale grocery firms, carrying such founders’ names as T. G. Bush, M. Forcheimer, James McPhillips and James McDonnell, operated here with multiple floors of warehouse space. 

Other buildings housed dealers in produce, flour, grain, as well as the offices of the big banana importers. Ship chandlers and suppliers worked near wholesale drug warehouses, candy factories and traders in wool and hides. Jacob and Adolph Bloch sold the latest carriages, buggies and all necessary harnesses here before later maps divulge the arrival of gas stations, garages and repair shops.

And not surprisingly, there were several corner saloons in the mix, along with wholesale liquor dealers. A period map reveals that the second floor of 19 Commerce St. was home to an unnamed “secret society” in 1904.

The Demise

So what happened to all this? A number of factors led to decline. This wholesale district was designed for access to the wharves and the railroad lines.

During the 20th century, the arrival of the state docks and then the dominance of trucking directed the move of  many businesses towards the new highways. By the 1960s, critics described the area as “a snaggle-toothed array of vacant buildings and parking lots.”

In 1965, the Mobile Housing Board had plans underway to use the vast financial resources of the federal government to clear the place from Water Street east to the river. A greatly widened Water Street would allow motorists to “whisk along the new boulevard-parkway entrance to downtown … enjoying a curving panorama of clean-lined and green-set buildings.”

Property owners were issued checks and the wreckers arrived. Commerce and Front streets became memories, as did surviving warehouses. Thanks to urban renewal this section of Mobile was cleared as efficiently as Hiroshima. 

The Remains

Two notable buildings miraculously survived on the edge of this district. They give us an idea of what was lost. The Daniels-Elgin Building (1860) at the southwest corner of Dauphin and Water still stands with its handsome cast iron façade. The former home of McGowin-Lyons Hardware Company (1907) at the southwest corner of St. Louis and Water streets represents the impressive size of many of the lost warehouses. Now dubbed 1 St. Louis Centre, it, like the Daniels-Elgin Building, has been successfully adapted to first-rate office space.

One can only wonder how many of the dozens of buildings, which were turned to rubble, could have been similarly revitalized and repurposed, as has happened in New Orleans.

Tom McGehee

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