Ask McGehee: What is the history of the lost waterfront resort Frascati?

Horse and buggy on a dirt road along the water
An image of the toll booth that was located on Bay Shell Road, the 7-mile stretch along the Bay that was once home to Frascati. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

In the early 19th century, the bayfront immediately south of the city of Mobile held a shell-paved road lined with summer homes. In the mid-1850s, the road was improved and extended by the Shell Road Company, a private entity that installed a toll gate at the foot of Conception Street (which at one-time ended at the Bay) to offset the costs of upkeep. The drive skirted the Bay for seven miles and became a favorite with horseback riders and carriage owners.

In 1866, Henry Nabring, an owner of the Battle House Hotel, purchased a 15-acre site at the end of Conception Street and dubbed it Frascati. The name was borrowed from an ancient hillside city near Rome known for its spacious villas and fountains. Another factor in Nabring’s selection of the site was the recent southward extension of the Royal Street trolley line, making the park even more accessible.

In 1870, Nabring left the hotel business and was described as “Proprietor, Frascati Garden” in that year’s city directory. The following year, he sold the property and was listed as the proprietor of a South Royal Street saloon, The Railroad House.

The new owner of Frascati was Martin Horst, prosperous wholesale grocer, liquor dealer and owner of the City Exchange Saloon on Conti Street. Horst would serve as Mobile’s mayor in 1871.

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Horst’s success in business allowed him to build a grand mansion in Mobile and obtain a spacious bayfront summer home adjoining Frascati. It was Horst who oversaw the enlargement and improvement of Frascati and turned it into the area’s premier entertainment park with large trees, a dance pavilion, an open-air theater, long wharf and baseball park. A popular restaurant supplied food and drinks to the crowds.

A Summer Favorite

Frascati flourished in the 1880s. Theaters closed for the summers in Mobile at the time, so the open-air location was ideal for a wide array of well-known performers traveling around the U.S. As the crowd enjoyed a Bay breeze, they might watch a new Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or a more serious dramatic performance. In between were regular Sunday afternoon band concerts.

On a hot June evening in 1882, Irish-born poet, playwright and author Oscar Wilde stopped in Mobile on his American tour. With Mobile’s theaters closed for the season, Frascati was the only choice for the celebrity’s visit, and it was widely advertised. 

The Irishman was known for his odd attire and ideas, and he did not disappoint. His subject for the evening was “Decorative Art,” and he condemned “bad wallpapers, meaningless chandeliers and horse-hair sofas” to a puzzled audience filled with owners of all three. He left them with this advice: “Bad art is worse than no art at all.”

Although some have cited Frascati as drawing a more elite clientele, there are references to horse-drawn trolleys overflowing with noisy, overheated fans headed to baseball games. But not everyone was happy with the park’s popularity. At least one Baptist congregation condemned the idea of playing baseball at Frascati on Sundays.

The Fun Comes to a Sad End

Frascati passed out of the Horst family by 1888, and the park was enjoyed until an October day in 1893 when a hurricane destroyed the property and washed away Bay Shell Road. The company that operated the road never turned much of a profit, so it was never rebuilt.

In February of 1894, the Mobile Register reported that the Frascati property had been sold to a Detroit developer who planned to build a hotel on the site, but none ever appeared.

“Frascati Park and Baseball Grounds” was listed in Mobile’s city directories in 1894 and 1895 but disappears after that issue. Nearby Monroe Park, with all its attractions and baseball park, was too big a draw. And it was directly connected to all of Mobile by the owner’s electric trolley system. 

In 1898, the new Mobile, Jackson and Kansas City Railroad bought the land and built their railroad repair shops on it. The former Horst home was used as a residence but was later converted to office space. Over the years, that building was modified and modernized by subsequent owners of the line until it was termed obsolete, finally meeting wreckers in 2010.  

Today, this very industrial area would be unrecognizable to Wilde or any of the thousands of 19th century Mobilians who once sought a summer breeze and entertainment.

Click here to learn more about Mobile’s waterfront developments throughout the years.

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