Real life Mobile’s “Designing Women” put the fictional characters of the 1990s sitcom in their place. Our city’s 20th-century design history has its fair share of Julias, Suzannes, Mary Jos and Charlenes. A glimpse into the lives of Harriet Kelly, Irene Pintel, Maureen Haas and Martha Hamilton illustrates the entry of women into the world of business, the development of our city and the stories behind major landmarks we know and love.
Harriet Kelly possessed both business sense and design flare. Her friend and protégé Genie Inge describes her as “working with both sides of the brain.” Active from the 1940s into the 1980s, Kelly defined an era and helped establish the city’s design field.
One of the first women to graduate from the University of Alabama with a business degree, she established the Town Shop, behind the St. Charles Apartments at Government and Marine streets, a grand apartment block that she owned and administered — at a time when most women were not active in the professional world. The Town Shop offered more than shades, fabrics and other fittings. That small atelier functioned as a launching pad for other designers, Inge included. Kelly was known for her passion for and utilization of color. She could even make chartreuse a new black! Yearly trips to New York, and later Atlanta, brought a vibrancy of hue and richness of texture that found their way into homes across the Mobile region. The edible and organic figural arrangements featured at so many wedding receptions and Mardi Gras parties got their start at Kelly’s memorable fetes.
Irene Rybalka Pintel
Irene Rybalka Pintel represents an exotic current in Mobile’s design history, so appropriate to our status as a port city. Hailing from venerable Eastern European gentry stock, Pintel’s family fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. It was in Paris that she received instruction in design and married Victor Pintel, a Frenchman who worked for Mobile lumber merchant and philanthropist Ben May. The couple moved to Mobile in the 1940s.
A cosmopolitan Parisienne of noble descent, Pintel soon won friends in the Port City’s cultured circles. A close friendship with Belle Roberts, wife of E. A. Roberts of the Waterman Corporation and an early woman real estate developer in her own right, brought with it commissions to redecorate the Grand Hotel and countless interiors. Pintel’s own Provident Lane (No. 12) home, a work of architect Edward Baumhauer, ranks among Mobile’s finest essays in midcentury design.
Maureen Cottrell Haas
Whereas Harriet Kelly and Irene Pintel sought the new and latest trends, Maureen Cottrell Haas, affectionately known as “Miss Totsie” to family and friends, championed, if not pioneered, the beauty of the old.
Haas and her husband, Dr. Toxey Haas, first set up housekeeping in the 1930s on Roper Street in the Garden District. As with many couples, they filled their home with furnishings from both sides of newly united tribes. Following her husband’s diagnosis of tuberculosis and subsequent early retirement from medical practice, Haas made a career out of her forays with furniture of the past, thus putting three sons through college. She honed her skills over the course of decades, including taking classes at Colonial Williamsburg.
At a time when the architectural landscape of “Old Mobile” was beginning to erode, the Haases purchased and restored “The Magnolias,” a long vacant villa on Springhill Avenue. “Magnolia Manor,” as the Haas home is known today, most recently served as a venue for social events. In Haas’ day, the property functioned as a family home and business establishment. Eighteenth-century and museum-quality pieces took center stage within the spacious rooms of her Italianate dwelling. Starting out in antiques, Haas would expand her operations to include interior design and accessories. She operated The Magnolias well into her 80s. By the 1980s, the home appeared as one of the city’s house museums, a mark of distinction befitting its chatelaine.
Martha Pillans Hamilton
Martha Pillans Hamilton, like Maureen Haas, conducted business from her personal residence. Both ladies represented the last of a tradition — the genteel antiquarian. Every Southern town of any note possessed such gracious ladies. Like the Carolina parakeet, these grand dames are now sadly an extinct species.
Hamilton’s Colonial Mobile Shop, as her son, respected lawyer and lobbyist Palmer C. Hamilton notes, is not only the oldest house on Government Street (No. 1407), but also the longest one to remain in family hands. The name “colonial” in Colonial Mobile Shop harks to the proprietress’ and her hometown’s equally illustrious heritages. From her grand Gulf Coast cottage, Hamilton offered one-of-a-kind objects from private collections. A rap on her front door afforded access into a world most rarely encountered, if existent at all now.
Harriet Kelly, Irene Pintel, Maureen Haas and Martha Pillans Hamilton represent different facets of the interior design field. Consciously or unconsciously, they broke metaphorical — and in some cases, real — glass ceilings, while still maintaining the best of traditions. These designing women contributed more than their fair share to the chic and mystique of Mobile’s third golden age, that of the postwar boom.