Ask McGehee: The former Higgins Mortuary

The building had a storied past as both a social club and a mortuary. One of the most well-respected funeral homes, Higgins Mortuary, had a long life at the Government Street location in question.

The Rise of Mortuaries

The mortuary business grew at a slower pace in the more traditional South, and well into the 1930s it was not uncommon for funerals to be conducted from the family residence. During the 1920s, some of the area’s first funeral homes seem to have discovered Government Street.

In 1922, mortician Frank Roche purchased a two-story brick house at the southeast corner of Government and Franklin streets. The late John Curtis Bush, a mayor of Mobile, had previously occupied the space. 
Five years later, John Higgins and Harry Courtney established their funeral home in a brick house at the northwest corner of Government and Scott streets. This firm later moved into the massive Spanish-style building.

High Society

In October of 1932, the Higgins Mortuary made the newspaper when it set up shop in the former clubhouse of the Fidelia Club, an organization that was established in 1883 for “the fostering of good fellowship” among Mobile’s most prominent Jewish citizens.

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The club first occupied two floors above the original Gayfers department store at the southeast corner of Dauphin and Conception streets. A fire ravaged that location. By 1900, the Fidelia Club had moved to the southeast corner of Government and Conception streets, where a new four-story clubhouse that contained everything from a ballroom to a bowling alley had been constructed.

This second home was sold to Hammel’s department store, which was contemplating a new location. The wreckers came, but not the department store.

The board of the club hired architect George B. Rogers to design a new clubhouse several blocks west at the northeast corner of Government Street and Washington Avenue.

Rogers termed the building’s style as “mission” and fronted the stucco structure with a deep porch. Parlors, a banquet hall, a billiard room, library and a barbershop were inside. A grand staircase led to a second-floor ballroom which was 60-feet long, 40-feet wide and more than 20-feet tall.

Club memberships across the country declined steadily after the market crash in 1929, and Mobile’s Fidelia Club folded. In the fall of 1932, their elegant clubhouse went from hosting debutante functions to wakes.

Higgins Mortuary operated at this location for three decades. By the early 1960s, the city was pushing ever westward, and in 1964 the firm had moved to the beltline where its president was Minous H. Radney. The Radney name remains well known today among the city’s funeral homes.

The Afterlife

The former Higgins Mortuary on Government Street was a tough sell. Thirty years of funerals apparently did not add to the building’s desirability, and the once proud clubhouse was finally razed in 1969. A McDonald’s has been operating on that corner for more than 40 years now.

Roche Mortuary Service followed the westward trend, abandoning their 1872 mansion. However, that structure had better luck. In the 1970s, it was restored as the Museum of Mobile, and today successfully houses The Mobile Carnival Museum. The final home of the now defunct Roche Funeral Home has been replaced by an orthopedic clinic.

Tom McGehee

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