Ask McGehee: What is the history of the Waterman Building in downtown Mobile?

Waterman Building in Downtown Mobile 1948
Above A 1948 photograph of the Waterman Building lit up at night. The building in the foreground was the Mobile Post Office (1916-1968). Courtesy Bellingrath Collection

The Waterman Building was built in 1947 as a home for the largest privately owned shipping company in the world. The 18-story structure was built at a cost of $3 million, which today would be the equivalent of about $41 million.

The Waterman Steamship Corporation had humble beginnings. In 1919, New Orleans-born John B. Waterman was working as a local steamship agent when he joined forces with C. Walter Hempstead, a lumber exporter and Coca-Cola bottler Walter D. Bellingrath to form the company which would bear his name. The new firm owned exactly one vessel.

A Brief Bellingrath Connection 

Although Hempstead remained with the firm until his death in 1937, Walter Bellingrath bailed out early in the game — a move he regretted the rest of his life. The partners were enjoying lunch one day when Bellingrath observed a waiter being handed a $5 tip by one of his fellow investors. He went home in a fury, telling his wife he had never seen such waste and he was selling his interest immediately before the company went bust. His shares were sold to the company’s auditor, H. Crawford Slaton.

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The new firm moved their offices onto the sixth floor of the old First National Bank Building. By the mid-1930s, they were on the 12th and 13th floors of the new Merchants National Bank Building. This move had more to do with bank loyalty than location. It seems that Waterman had applied for a substantial loan from First National for expansion only to be declined. However, Ernest Ladd approved the loan, leading to a long and very prosperous relationship between Merchants National Bank and Waterman.

Edward A. Roberts and Platt Roberts 

By the start of World War II, John Waterman had died, and his firm was in the very capable hands of his former assistant, Edward A. Roberts. In 1940, Waterman owned 125 vessels and had over 900 employees.

The phenomenal growth of the firm during those war years led to the firm’s desire to build an appropriate corporate headquarters. Waterman boasted more than two dozen branch offices around the United States by that time.

Mr. Roberts did not travel far when he selected an architect. He chose his older brother, John Platt Roberts who had previously practiced architecture in Montgomery.

The style of the building is unique. Roberts turned a blank wall to the unforgiving western exposure and mounted vertical adjustable sunshades over windows to assist with keeping the interiors cool. The skyscraper’s height was purposefully kept just below that of the Merchants National Bank Building as a sign of respect to the bank that granted the firm a loan when it needed it most.

The first floor is clad in polished granite and when completed the lobby was described as “monumental in character” featuring colorful mosaic panels which took a New Orleans artist more than a year to complete. 

The Waterman Globe

But the star of the show was the 12-foot rotating globe designed by the Rand McNally Corporation at a cost of $40,000, or over half a million in today’s dollars. Visitors could stand at a polished brass railing and see lights representing the firm’s ships as they traveled around the world.

The lobby and that globe became an immediate tourist attraction. In fact, Waterman hired two full time guides to welcome guests to the lobby and answer their questions.

In March of 1950, shortly after the end of the Carnival season, the public was invited to inspect the rest of the 100,000-square-foot building which housed 350 full-time employees. Four “noiseless” elevators took visitors up to the executive offices on the 15th and 16th floors where they could step out onto an open terrace with planters filled with blooming azaleas.

Five years later, McLean Securities bought out the firm for $42 million, which would equate to nearly $480 million these days. The building was renamed for Mr. Roberts until it was sold to Commercial Guaranty Bank in 1973. It was the bank which removed the monumental globe from the lobby to make space for customers.

The Waterman Building Once Again

The building’s identity was changed repeatedly depending on what bank called it home, but long-time Mobilians always referred to it as the Waterman Building. In 1996, the Waterman Globe was carefully restored and placed in the lobby of the Mitchell Center on the USA campus. The vacant lobby which it once dominated has been looking for a tenant, but the office building has gotten the proud name of Waterman reinstated.

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