Ask McGehee: Who designed Mobile’s Battle House Hotel?

Lobby of the Battle House Hotel
Inside the lobby of Mobile’s Battle House Hotel. Its “whispering arches” and Crystal Ballroom were the handiwork of architect Frank Mills Andrews. Photo by Art Meripol
Frank Mills Andrews was one of America’s most successful early 20th-century architects. He designed a number of very elegant hotels, including the Battle House. Photo courtesy Curt Dalton

Although routinely missing from a list of his creations, the Battle House was designed by nationally renowned architect Frank Mills Andrews (1867 – 1948) in 1906. 

Andrews was a native of Iowa where he studied civil engineering at Iowa State before obtaining his architectural degree from Cornell in 1888. His first work was in New York where he studied under George B. Post. That architect created some of the city’s most memorable buildings, including the New York Stock Exchange, the New York Times Building and one of America’s largest mansions, the Fifth Avenue palace occupied by Cornelius Vanderbilt, II.

Andrews followed Mr. Post to Chicago where he worked on the design of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and he was subsequently hired by the National Cash Register Company to design their main factory, as well as their offices in Ohio.

His Hotel Era

In 1905, he set up an office in Cincinnati, and his hotel work took center stage. That was the year his grand Seelbach Hotel opened in Louisville. The 500-room showplace featured a trellised roof garden — something he would later place on top of Mobile’s Battle House as well. 

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Apparently, some Kentucky politicians made note of Andrews’ talents, and he was selected to design that state’s capitol building. The cornerstone was dedicated in 1906, and the $1.2 million structure was dedicated four years later.

Mobile’s original Battle House Hotel went up in flames on an icy February night in 1905. In April, the Mobile Register reported that the Stone Brothers of New Orleans had presented plans for a replacement. That architectural firm had built several commercial buildings in Mobile, and their Lyric Theatre on Conti Street was under construction at the time.

It is unclear why the investors changed to Frank Andrews. Perhaps news of his Louisville creation caught their attention, but it was Andrews who drew up the final plans, and construction began in 1906. The $1.4 million steel and concrete building was designed to be fireproof and opened to great acclaim in 1908. The following year, Andrews, described as “dashingly handsome,” became the first of five husbands of Pauline Frederick, the Broadway and later Hollywood actress. This added to his cachet. 

While the Battle House was under construction, Andrews was also at work on the Sinton Hotel, in Cincinnati, which opened in 1907. Two of the most recognizable public spaces in the Battle House, the lobby with its “whispering arches” and the columned Crystal Ballroom, had nearly mirror images within the Sinton. Sadly, that hotel was demolished in 1964.

The Largest Hotel in the World

In 1912, the same year that the Titanic, the world’s largest vessel, set sail, New York was the site of the newest and largest hotel in the world. The McAlpine Hotel on Broadway was Andrews’ design and stood an impressive 25 stories. It contained 1,500 rooms and was equipped with every imaginable luxury. There was even an exotic Turkish bath with an adjoining “plunge.” 

One entire floor was created to house women and children. All the employees on that level were female, and there was a full-service beauty salon, as well as an outdoor playground. On the 23rd floor was what was described as a fully staffed “miniature hospital.”

After his success with hotels, Andrews went on to oversee major construction projects around the United States and England, and by 1929, his estimated net worth was a staggering $22 million.

In the years after the end of World War II, Mobile’s Battle House underwent a major renovation, and soon after, its original architect died in Brooklyn at the age of 81. Although a few of Andrews’ hotel creations have been demolished, the Battle House and the former McAlpine Hotel survive.

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