Ask McGehee: What is the history of Mobile’s Washington Square?

Washington Square fountain
Sun shines through the oaks on the once-destroyed cupid and dolphin statues, now overlooking the fountain at Washington Square. Photo courtesy Visit Mobile

Mobile’s Washington Square is one of the city’s most beloved parks and is surrounded by some of the finest examples of 19th-century architecture in the Oakleigh Garden District. Occupying a city block, it is bounded by Charleston Street and a bit of Palmetto Street to the north, Charles Street to the east, Chatham to the west and Augusta Street to the south.

Plans for a square in this vicinity were discussed as early as 1821, but it would be October of 1850 before it was deeded to the city by Archibald Gordon. A native of Connecticut, Gordon migrated to Mobile where he would serve as the first cashier for the Bank of Mobile, founded in 1818.

Two years later, Gordon was a partner in the Mobile Aqueduct Company, which attempted to bring fresh water to town from Three Mile Creek. In 1821, he purchased a 200-acre tract that he subdivided into building lots. It was here that he eventually created space for Washington Square.

A Public Promenade — With Stipulations

In a letter dated October 7, 1850, Gordon wrote Mayor Charles C. Langdon offering to convey all of the streets running through his tract to the city. He stipulated that a portion of the land be set aside for “a public promenade,” with the provision that it must be enclosed by a fence but open at all times for the use of the public.  

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Gordon was quite specific on the name of this public promenade: “Washington Square.” The title appears to have been chosen to honor the late president, not after a better known park in New York City. That Greenwich Village landmark would not be dedicated until 1871.

The city of Mobile accepted the gift in January 1851. A “good substantial fence” was to be erected within six months, and a proposition called for the property to be cultivated “with flowers, trees and shrubbery … to be planted this spring.” A paid superintendent was also hired to maintain this “pleasant and ornamental promenade.”

To protect the square, the city enacted a $50 fine for anyone caught cutting trees or shrubs, dumping trash or hanging their laundry there.

Next, the city set about to improve it as required. In 1850, the neighborhood was still sparsely populated, and the required fence was installed to keep out wandering cows and an occasional pig. Underbrush had to be removed, and shrubs and trees were planted. 

Winding hedge-lined walkways led to a well, which was accessed by a hand-cranked pump. This was well before a full city water supply was available. Gas lights were placed on its four corners, and over time, benches were installed as well as a small bandstand for concerts. 

Its Benefactor’s Demise

Gordon’s two-story home overlooked the square from the north. Both the date of its construction and his occupancy are unclear, but in the early 1860s, his address was published in the city directory as “64 St. Francis Street, boards Mrs. George.”

His former home eventually sat vacant and over time deteriorated. Neighbors recalled it years later as a forlorn structure with broken windows and sagging shutters. A fire finally reduced it to ashes. 

Gordon died in 1866 leaving an estate appraised at nearly $150,000 (about $2.5 million today) and consisting of dozens of parcels of real estate in Mobile. His will ordered the property sold and the proceeds distributed to the numerous children of his 10 deceased brothers and sisters who were scattered around the north. He also specified the sum of $5,000 to “Thomas Carter, my servant and former slave.” Gordon is buried alone, in an aboveground tomb in Church Street Graveyard.

Washington Square Gets a Face-lift

When Mobile’s postwar economy finally improved in the late 1880s, the city began to spend money on its parks. Since the threat of roaming cattle was gone, the wooden picket fence around Washington Square was removed and straight concrete sidewalks were installed. A citywide water system made the old pump unnecessary and a concrete basin was placed in the center. A cast-iron deer, formerly in Bienville Square, made his new home here during the square’s remodeling.

May Randlette Beck, a longtime resident, recalled the basin as being surrounded by “concrete boxes for ferns and flowers and four cupid figures in between, riding on the backs of a spouting dolphin.” In 1946, she reported that “as time went on, vandals set up a private guillotine, and one by one the little cupids were decapitated and then dethroned.”  

In those post World War II years, what is now the Oakleigh Garden District saw a steady decline. A great many of the large homes were subdivided into boarding houses for war workers, and developers were enticing more prosperous Mobilians ever westward. 

By the 1980s, preservationists had rediscovered the neighborhood, and today, the houses surrounding Washington Square are some of the most sought-after in Mobile. The popular park has also been refurbished, and the cast-iron deer has patiently borne the weight of untold numbers of children as he serves as a photo op.

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