Mobile and the Alabama Black Belt are linked by myriad economic, social and familial connections. As Mobile’s prospects continue to flourish, the custom of having a place “up the country” is experiencing its own renaissance. Arguably, the town of Camden and its environs have drawn more Mobilians to the Black Belt than any of the region’s many other charming hamlets. A close look at three distinctive Camden properties, and the Mobilians behind them, affords a glimpse into the richness of the Black Belt’s architecture and the variety of approaches to preserve it.
Camden, located two hours north of Mobile, is the county seat of Wilcox County. While small in size and population, the town has an atmosphere and energy. The built environment is a literary ideal in the real. A columned courthouse presides over the town square. Vendors selling fruits and vegetables from the back of pickup trucks surround it during the growing months. An old hardware store, the type where you can find everything under the sun and then some, overlooks the square. Church steeples, an ancient Greek Revival Masonic lodge, and the 1840s Female Institute populate the two principal residential streets, both of which are lined with houses that are approaching 200 years in age.
St. Mary’s: A Carpenter Gothic Gem
Clifton Street is one of Camden’s two main thoroughfares. As the street heads toward the river, the houses become fewer in number and blocks transition to villa estates and, ultimately, plantations. The picturesque steeple of St. Mary’s, an 1850s deconsecrated Episcopal church, rises serenely within the tree canopy of one of Clifton Street’s innermost blocks. Unlike so many of Camden’s buildings, St. Mary’s is defined by neither classical columns nor white clapboard walls. The board-and-batten-sided edifice, with its pointed arch windows, has been an architectural departure from the time of its completion in 1856. Designed and constructed by master builder Alexander Jackson Bragg (a brother of Judge John Bragg and General Braxton Bragg of Mobile), St. Mary’s originally served a small yet genteel flock of Episcopalians.
St. Mary’s numbers dwindled during the early 20th century, and the church hosted its last service in the 1920s. During the early 1940s, a Mobile-born resident of Camden adaptively reused the sturdy church building, making it into a personal residence. The upper portions of the steeple were removed, and what remained of it was converted into a porch. The chancel was also removed. St. Mary’s served as a residence for the next 75 years.
In 2015, Palmer and Amy Hamilton acquired the property. Palmer, a Mobile attorney, has restored almost 100 historic structures in Mobile. Amy has been an unofficial realtor and ambassador for Oakleigh Garden District for four decades. With the aid of Mobile restoration architect Douglas Burtu Kearley, the Hamiltons artfully restored St. Mary’s. Gothic and Gothick blend flawlessly within and without. With balancing measures of erudition and whimsy, new features take their inspiration from the old with flair.
Amy and Palmer reconstructed the steeple, restoring the original appearance of St. Mary’s. They also took what had been a converted garage and created a charming guest cottage which is linked to St. Mary’s by a breezeway, affording a walk through the beautiful grounds designed by Mary Palmer Dargan by way of Charleston and Cashiers. A visit to St. Mary’s has become a communion with good taste and soothing spirits.
Historic Name St. Mary’s
Year Built 1855-1856
Style Gothic Revival
Built by Alexander Jackson Bragg
Current Owners Palmer and Amy Hamilton of Mobile
Number of Bedrooms Two in main house and one in chancel cottage (a house on an adjoining lot is being renovated as a guest house)
Ceiling Height 18 feet
Number of Fireplaces One
Number of Outbuildings Three
Architecture St. Mary’s is among the most distinctive of approximately two dozen Gothic Revival churches constructed in the Black Belt prior to the Civil War.
Lore Tradition holds that when St. Mary’s was deconsecrated, the original church bell was given to another congregation. It is missing. If you know of the bell’s whereabouts, come forth!
RiverBend: A Villa Estate
RiverBend, the old Bell-Moore Place, is located in the suburban fringes of Camden. The estate was once the seat of a large plantation. The house, which dates from the 1840s, once perched on a bluff overlooking the Alabama River. The residence was moved to its present site not long after its completion. The house had fallen on hard times when Ryan Dunagan and Chris Bailey purchased it in 2018.
The owners of Ryan Studio in Mobile fell in love with the house at first sight. With two large formal rooms flanking a front hall and four bedrooms situated beyond an infilled breezeway, there was much to capture their creative minds. The 16-foot-tall ceilings alone are inspirational! There were also the remains of formal gardens, which were best viewed from the large L-shaped porch. That gracious gallery is a Carolina porch, an umbrage in which the columnar supports rest not on the porch deck but on independent piers.
As a result, Ryan and Chris had great bones with which to work. They not only restored the main house, they constructed two large rear wings, built new ancillary buildings and reinstated formal gardens and grounds. The interiors evoke an instant ancestral feel, albeit with contemporary chic and modern conveniences.
Ryan and Chris also have restored two downtown buildings for use as The Pecan, their gourmet market-restaurant, and they are currently renovating three more buildings, one of which will be a high-end clothier named the Fox and Hen.
Historic Name Bell-Moore Place
Year Built Circa 1840
Style Greek Revival
Built for Martha and Thomas Moore
Current Owners Chris Bailey and Ryan Dunagan
Number of Bedrooms Four
Ceiling Height 16 feet
Number of Fireplaces Seven (indoors)
Number of Outbuildings Five
Architecture RiverBend is a classic example of “Southern Country Greek Revival”
architecture. Classical and classically inspired details are adapted to the climactic and social conditions of the Deep South.
Lore During the Civil War, the records for Wilcox County were buried behind the house. After the war, the documents were returned safe and sound.
Yaupon: The Plantation Ideal
When most people imagine a Southern plantation house, the image they have in their minds is probably something like Yaupon, the Mathews-Tait-Rutherford House. Dating from the mid-1840s, it is the Chatsworth of Wilcox County. The grandly proportioned, two-story frame residence is elevated atop a raised brick basement and fronted by a monumental pedimented portico. Very few houses, especially of the scale of Yaupon, survive with their raised basements intact.
Two octagonal pavilions once flanked the house. One was lost to fire and the other relocated to the rear of the house to serve as a kitchen. There are four main rooms on each floor — two to either side of a central hallway. The principal rooms of the main floor feature pocket doors. Sliding into the reveals of the interior walls, pocket doors allow for either connectivity or privacy in terms of space and circulation of people and air.
William T. Mathews, a wealthy planter / builder / saw mill owner, constructed Yaupon as his personal residence. His heirs owned the place until 1901, at which time it was sold to the Taits, a prominent old gentry family. In 1999, Laura and Schley Rutherford of Mobile purchased the house. The most conscientious of cultural stewards, the Rutherfords are in no way strangers to the Black Belt. They embarked upon a meticulous restoration of the landmark dwelling. The brick walls of the basement were repointed with lime-based mortar. Plaster walls were repaired as opposed to being replaced with sheetrock. Windows were made operable again, with working shutters. Outbuildings rescued from demolition on another Black Belt property were moved to the rear of the house and reconstructed.
The Rutherfords and their family have made a grand house into a welcoming and elegant home. As the epicenter of landed holdings, upon which traditional sporting and equine pursuits are the name of the game, Yaupon is the beau ideal of country life. It is flawless in every respect.
Historic Name Yaupon, Mimosa, and the Mathews-Tait House
Year Built Circa 1845
Style Greek Revival with lingering Federal influences
Built by William T. Mathews, first owner and master builder
Current Owners Laura and Schley Rutherford
Number of Bedrooms Four
Ceiling Height 12 feet on main floor
Number of Fireplaces 12
Number of Outbuildings Eight
Architecture The main house is a sophisticated blend of Federal and Greek Revival elements with fanlights representing the former style harmonizing perfectly with the pedimented portico of the latter.
Lore It is said that the contractor overseeing the construction of the house neglected to include a staircase, resulting in his dismissal. Now Yaupon has not one but two staircases!
St. Mary’s, RiverBend and Yaupon are unique unto themselves. Each property is at once a singular architectural gem, and each embodies a different approach to preservation. All three homes showcase the allure of the country and Mobile’s presence therein.