Chronicles from Shell Cottage

Cherished memories and a humorous history are part of the foundation of one of Mobile’s oldest homes.

Photos by Laura Rowe

In the heart of Mobile’s lost vacation village of Summerville stands an extraordinary architectural relic of the mid-19th century. If you could find the raised Gulf Coast cottage veiled by a palisade of azaleas, you would understand why historians marvel at its elegance and dignity. The home that sits atop a throne of piers overlooks a lawn adorned with camellias, magnolias and live oaks. A staircase that flares with a subtle bow guides the eye to an inviting porch that runs the length of the facade and an entrance door framed in kaleidoscopic windowpanes. The paneled jib doors that open to let breeze flow through the house and the chamfered Tuscan Doric columns are pieces of art in their own right. When Joy Ogburn Gardner stands at the lamppost at the foot of the stairs and gazes up at the magnificent dwelling, she isn’t looking at Mobile’s historic Shell Cottage. She’s looking at her childhood home. 

Gardner’s family became part of a fascinating, chronologically contested lineage of Shell Cottage residents when Gardner’s father, Reuben Walter Ogburn, purchased the house in 1950. Property records have incited friendly debates among local historians about the property’s timeline, but the Mobile City Planning Commission’s Architectural Evaluation report provides some insight into Shell Cottage’s history. The undeveloped lot was reportedly first owned by John Forsythe, who would become the mayor of Mobile in 1860. Forsythe, a decorated colonel lacking in financial acumen, had the property seized by the sheriff to partially satisfy a $10,831 debt to the state of Alabama. Alabama Life Insurance & Trust Co. assumed the deed and sold the Shell Cottage property to U.S. Representative John Bragg, who sold it to a man named John Burden after he was elected to the 32nd Congress. Burden only maintained the property for one year before selling it to the Lee family, who sold it that same year to Archibald Laird. Records from 1855 seem to reflect the city clerk’s office’s exasperation with the property’s frequent changing of hands. Rather than listing an official owner of the lot, the city directory from that year states that there was “some passing back and forth at this point between Lee, Laird & McClean.” In 1860, the property was purchased by one of its most famous landlords, John Elliott.

Added Color: While the technicolor window panes around the home’s front door are beguiling, they wouldn’t have been original to the home. The Ogburns found extra colored glass panes in the attic, indicating there might have been a matching back door before the house was renovated to make space for an attached kitchen.
Open door policy: Before the screened-in porch was converted to a sunroom, the jib doors could be opened to allow breeze to flow through the home. 

John Elliott didn’t have the prestige or notoriety of John Forsythe or John Bragg, but he did have Frank Crawford for a wife. At least, he had her for a little while. Frank, who was bestowed that name before her parents knew they would be blessed with a baby girl, was very attached to her mother — so much so that John Elliott was privileged to have his mother-in-law join the newlyweds on their honeymoon. Elliott expected that he and his bride would move into the cottage he built for her in the suburb of Summerville when they returned home from their postnuptial trip. Frank, unsure where her husband got such a notion, insisted on staying with her parents and refused to cross the threshold of the home intended for her. A dejected Elliott separated from his wife and sold the property when he moved to Texas. Frank and her mother left Mobile shortly thereafter and moved to New York, where she met and married Cornelius Vanderbilt. A mansion proved a suitable enough abode for Frank to finally move in with her spouse. 

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Shell Cottage had several other ad interim custodians over the 89 years before the Ogburns acquired it, but it’s difficult to imagine that any loved it as much as they did. The house became a member of the family when their second son was born the night they moved in. It’s where the Ogburn children took their first steps and spoke their first words. Easter lunches and Christmas dinners were served in the dining room beneath the crystal chandelier. Neighbors would come over for drinks on the porch and watch their children form friendships that would grow as they did. Gardner loved her childhood home so much that she held her wedding reception in the garden. 

The exterior of the house was always a special place for Gardner and her mother. Mrs. Hattie Ogburn took great joy in having evening cocktails on the porch swing and watching Gardner collect four o’clock flowers on the aluminum tray she received as a wedding gift. It was their own secret Eden — one the ever-generous Hattie was all too eager to share. Anyone who managed to find the obscured, shell-covered driveway for which the cottage was named would be warmly greeted and directed to park by the hitching post original to the home. She’d offer them a beverage and a wicker chair under the shade of the low-pitched gable roof over the porch, a feature that silhouettes most Gulf Coast cottages of the era. Gardner would listen to her mother entertain their guests while stringing together flower chains, feeling the breeze brush past her into the house through the open jib doors. It was in moments like these that she learned from her mother how to be a gracious host. 

Take cover: Shell Cottage’s front porch, extending along the face of the house, was one of Hattie Ogburn’s favorite entertaining spaces.
Portrait of a Hostess: Ogburn loved few things more than sharing her home with guests. She had a particular fondness for entertaining on her porch.
Warm Memories: Gardner and her twin, Charles Ogburn, wait for Santa in front of the fireplace circa 1960.
The ornate twin mantels in the parlor and dining room were adopted by Shell Cottage when the Seamen’s Bethel was moved to the University of South Alabama campus.

Hattie’s entertaining savior faire followed her over the threshold of the federal-style door into the entrance hall of Shell Cottage. Her company would enter to find red and purple rays cast onto the damask walls and the heart pine floors from colored glass windows that were installed around the door in the 1850s. They’d see a reflection of themselves in the gilded pier mirror against a wall that now severs what was once a hallway that connected the front and back of the house, a necessary renovation to create space for a not-detached kitchen and a screened-in porch. An etched-glass pendant light hanging from a plaster ceiling medallion would highlight the grandeur of the nearly 14-foot-tall ceilings. Hattie, as talented a decorator as she was a hostess, complemented these luxurious features with silk fabrics and oriental rugs that awed her guests.

Gardner fondly remembers the days friends and family would come over for meals around the dining room table. Easters and Thanksgivings are well chronicled in photographs. Hattie served traditional foods associated with those holidays on the marble-top buffet, and guests would take their seats around the oblong table exquisitely decorated with fresh flowers from the garden. Children were banished to a card table in the corner of the room, but they were still given a tablecloth and a bud vase for ambiance. New Year’s Day parties were potluck meals with Hattie’s venison and oysters as the star attractions. After-church lunches were less-formal occasions, but lovely nonetheless. Christmas, however, was by far the most cherished holiday at Shell Cottage.

Hattie insisted on a live Christmas tree every year. “One thing Mom loved was a real tree,” Gardner recalls, “Real, live plants were really important to her, but she wasn’t extravagant in her holiday decorating. It was just those big bulb lights and some ornaments every year. It was always very beautiful, but it was fairly simple.” Hattie’s proclivity for simple holiday decor doesn’t mean that Christmas wasn’t a theatrical production. On Christmas mornings, the Ogburn children would eagerly wait outside the parlor to open their presents. Hattie would have closed the tremendous pocket doors on Christmas Eve before bed, and the children were forbidden to open them until their parents were ready to join them Christmas morning. The solid-wood doors, unusual for this kind of house, were so heavy that it was unlikely that they could defy their parents if they tried. Hattie would open the doors to reveal a tableau of gifts and greenery, and the children would open presents in front of the dramatic marble fireplace.

The fireplaces in the parlor and dining room were twin additions to Shell Cottage that carry their own history. Their original home was the Seaman’s Bethel on Church Street. The chapel was constructed in 1860 for protestant sailors passing through Mobile who needed a place to tend to their spiritual well-being. The marble mantels, featuring beveled arches and intricately-sculpted fruit embellishments, matched the bethel’s Gothic Revival style. The chapel, threatened by the construction of the George C. Wallace tunnel, was deconstructed and relocated to the University of South Alabama’s campus in 1968. The cupola didn’t survive the move, but Shell Cottage rescued the ornate fireplaces. 

Gardner lived in her Shell Cottage bedroom twice in her life. As a child, she played with dolls on the oriental rug on the hearth of the wood-burning fireplace and hosted slumber parties on her twin poster beds. Hattie convinced Gardner to move back into her room after she graduated from college. “My mother told me that I should really live at home and save some money to buy furniture,” Gardner recalls. “She loved antique furniture, and she thought I should invest in some pieces that would last. I still have the beautiful bed I bought from Yellow House Antiques and a bow-front chest from a place called Antoinette’s. She taught me to buy a few nice pieces I love instead of buying to fill a space. I’ve done it that way ever since then.”

Delicate Details

  • Gardner’s daughters slept in her twin beds when they spent the night at Shell Cottage.
  • The crawl space under Shell Cottage feels like a finished outdoor room with a herringbone brick floor. 
  • A peek into Gardner’s childhood bedroom. 
  • Gardner and Charles Ogburn pose for a photo in front of an aisle of azaleas circa 1963.

After she had her wedding at Shell Cottage and moved into a home with her husband, Gardner’s old bedroom was bequeathed to Hattie’s granddaughters who were to come. “Those paintings above each bed are my girls,” says Gardner. “My aunt painted those pastel portraits of my children, and those kind of became like their beds. My oldest is on the left and my youngest is over here to the right. I have a lot of memories here and they have theirs too. It’s just really special.”

Gardner’s children inherited their mother and grandmother’s fondness for being outside and created their own memories in the garden. “My children grew up spending a lot of time over here,” Gardner reminisces. “We decided when the girls were young to introduce them to gardening. We’d come over here to plant zinnias, and at some point we decided to build a bean house and grow some green beans. Sometimes they’d just run around outside, though the yard used to stretch all the way to Three Mile Creek before the Infirmary moved back there. Mostly, we’d just have fun and they’d play around. Those are really cute, sweet, happy memories.” Most of Gardner’s remembrances of Shell Cottage are. 

The house named after a driveway covered in tiny white shells is a repository for antiques, history, stories and fond memories. It’s been the home of great politicians, a repulsive offering to one bride and the savior of orphaned architectural relics. For the Ogburns, Shell Cottage was a member of the family. “I love this house. We all love it,” says Gardner. “I’m a sentimental person, and when I walk around the house, I feel more connected to my parents. My family grew up here, and we have quite a history here. Everything is attached to so many beautiful memories.” As Gardner reflects on the cherished remembrances woven into the fabric of Shell Cottage, it becomes evident that this historic abode is more than just a house. It’s a harbor of familial love, a monument of the past and a beacon of enduring heritage.

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