Ask McGehee: What is the history of the vacant Van Antwerp Building?

Ground was broken for Mobile’s Van Antwerp Building in 1906. Druggist Garrett Van Antwerp (1833 – 1911) had been in business on the southwest corner of Dauphin and Royal streets since 1888, in what the Mobile Register termed an “antiquated building.” Van Antwerp chose architect George B. Rogers to design the city and region’s first skyscraper. Detractors of the ambitious project called it “Van Antwerp’s folly.”

Two years later, in 1908, the building was complete. At 11 stories in height and covered in gleaming white terra-cotta tiles, it became an immediate landmark. An ornate “polychrome” cornice, its colors in direct contrast to the white walls below, topped it. Construction cost $200, 000 plus, and the life of one hapless workman who toppled to his death down an elevator shaft.

The exterior is unique, with its egg-and-dart moldings, along with garlands of fruits, vegetables, nuts and a pinecone. The corner is adorned with an oversized shield bearing the initials of its builder: GVA. A glass and steel canopy, which still protects the Dauphin Street sidewalk, cost $3, 000.

Two Otis elevators led from a white marble-clad lobby to the 150 offices above. There, tenants could choose from gas or electric lights. The woodwork throughout was mahogany, and marble water fountains on each floor were supplied with chilled water from a basement refrigeration plant. 

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A full-service barbershop was installed on the fifth floor, while a ladies’ “parlor, ” with adjoining restrooms, occupied a space on the second story. This was considered a novelty at the time, but the growing numbers of female stenographers made it a necessity.

Van Antwerp’s drugstore dominated the ground floor, with 3, 150 square feet of space and soaring 20-foot ceilings that boasted four massive combination chandelier / electric fans overhead. The walls were covered in mirrors, framed with mahogany arches and outlined with electric lights.

A crisp white marble soda fountain stretched 53 feet in length and, at the building’s completion, was touted as “the finest in the United States.” Ice cream and frozen buttermilk were produced from the milk obtained from a herd of dairy cows the Van Antwerp family owned.

An Architect's Penthouse

While Van Antwerp’s Drug Store packed in the customers, the uppermost floors remained vacant. Despite its well-advertised fire-proof construction, potential tenants expressed doubts about being so far from the ground. When the builder complained to his architect about the situation, Rogers moved his offices onto the top floor and retained that space until his death in 1945. Other tenants soon followed his lead.

For decades, those who worked Downtown crowded Van Antwerp’s for morning coffee or took their lunch there at noon. As the offices above were filled with a variety of physicians and dentists, their patients found it easy to stop on the first floor for prescriptions to be filled as they left the building.

As late as 1962, Van Antwerp’s advertised two trucks offering quick delivery of prescriptions to customers’ doors “day or night” as well as a “photographic department” with one-day service. The adjoining annex offered products, ranging from seeds to TV sets.

A Downtown Decline

The store remained in the Van Antwerp family until the mid-1960s, when it briefly became a branch for local drugstore chain Albright and Wood. By that time, most doctors and dentists had fled Downtown for new office space closer to the hospitals on Spring Hill Avenue. And, those 10 floors of once luxurious offices looked dowdy compared to those now offered within the newly completed First National Bank Building a block to the north.

By 1974, the first floor was vacant, and the status and number of tenants on the upper stories steadily declined. The mall mentality had hit Mobile, and businesses and customers headed west, leaving a Downtown filled with empty storefronts. 

12 More Years of Neglect

Despite Downtown improvements in the last decades of the century, the Van Antwerp Building struggled, and by 2000, the structure was sold at auction by Van Antwerp Realty. A spokesman explained that a better investment for the sale proceeds would be pursued.

For six years, the building sat vacant, except for fine dining establishment Café Royal on the first floor, which just closed recently. In 2006, a group of New Orleans investors purchased the structure with an announcement that the upper floors would be converted into condos. After six more years of forlorn abandonment, the fate of the Van Antwerp Building has taken a turn for the better.

Retirement Systems of Alabama has purchased it and announced plans to restore the upper floors to the quality office space that was envisioned by its builder. Plans are also underway to replace the long-missing cornice, right down to its original color palette. 

And who knows? That palatial ground floor might one day provide Downtown with a long-needed drugstore. It worked the first time.

text by Tom McGehee

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