Preserving Mobile’s History with Restore Mobile

Executive director Sydney Betbeze reflects on her path to Restore Mobile and her mission to preserve the city's architectural heritage.

Sydney Betbeze on the porch at 966 Seneca Street in Oakdale // Photo by Chad Riley

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story, which ran in the February 2022 issue of Mobile Bay Magazine, contained some factual errors that have been corrected in this online version. In addition, any misquotes by Mobile Bay using the problematic word “antebellum” attributed to Sydney Betbeze have been corrected. We apologize for these errors.

Take a stroll through Mobile: on your right, people gather in Bienville Square; on your left, a divine scent of seafood fills your nose, engulfing your body in a salty embrace; you keep walking, admiring the local plant life, reveling in the fact that your city is stunning. You think to yourself, What makes Mobile dazzle more than others? Minutes pass by until you finally realize, Aha! The architecture is what does it for me!

Sydney Betbeze, Restore Mobile’s six-year-and-counting executive director couldn’t agree with you more. For her, Mobile’s historic architecture is what makes her heart beat. Join MB in our conversation with Betbeze as we delve deeper into the movement to save Mobile’s original architecture.

What is Restore Mobile?

Restore Mobile is one of the organizations responsible for the superbly preserved architecture throughout the city of Mobile. Since its founding in 1992, Restore Mobile has preserved everything from commercial buildings to homes. The organization has helped restore over three dozen buildings and homes, ranging from exterior stabilizations to full renovations to new construction infill housing. We have worked in the Lower Dauphin Historic District, Church Street East Historic District, Old Dauphinway Historic District, Oakleigh Garden Historic District and are currently active in the Oakdale National Register Historic District. Restore Mobile aims to save homes and other buildings from demolition, all in hopes of restoring the city to its original charm: brimming with a wide variety of styles of historic architecture.

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How did your upbringing prepare you to take on Restore Mobile?

Having grown up just an hour away from New Orleans, I knew I would love to contribute to the preservation efforts of another historically rich city. I had family in New Orleans and visited frequently, so driving on a street filled with beautiful architecture became what I expected — what I knew. So, when I moved to Mobile, it felt like coming home.

What drew you to the organization?

When my husband and I relocated to Mobile, we found a historic home set to be demolished in DeTonti Square. We were able to move the home, saving it from demolition, and I contracted the renovation myself, turning it into our personal home.

Years later, a friend from my husband’s law school days, who was familiar with that project, reached out to me regarding a position at Restore Mobile.

Can you give an example of a recent project that might have been a favorite? Can there be a favorite?

That is difficult, of course, but one in particular, our second in the Oakdale District, exemplified the true spirit of activism and preservation. There is a large, two-story house that anchored its block and had been owned by the same family since it was built, likely at the end of the 19th century. About three years ago, unfortunately, the owner had decided to demolish it. Our efforts to make an agreement with him initially were unsuccessful; so we staged a “heartbombing” event, which just means that we asked the community to join us in writing love letters to the house. We set up across the street, at another house that we owned, provided supplies, and attached the letters to the chainlink fence in front of the house. The support from the community was palpable that day, and eventually, we were able to come to an agreement with the owner in which we moved the house to save it from demolition. We have since stabilized the exterior of the home to prevent further deterioration. It still stands as an anchor on its block and proves to the neighbors that their community matters and that their neighborhood deserves attention and investment.

Looking ahead, how do you plan to prepare for the work to come?

At its core, Restore Mobile will always be a brick-and-mortar, boots-on-the-ground organization, saving as many of Mobile’s historic homes as we can. However, as we grow, we envision education and advocacy to become larger parts of our everyday operations. Our architecture does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a neighborhood with people and families living within it. We want to engage with the community and be a helping hand and a resource when it comes to neighborhood revitalization and preservation.

Of course, we want to ensure Mobile stays a beautiful, historic city; however, Restore Mobile knows that the preservation of our historic architecture isn’t just sustaining something pretty to look at. It spurs economic development, promotes tourism, connects with our past, bolsters a sense of place and cultural identity, repurposes valuable building materials, and contributes to the creation of livable, walkable communities. Basically, the hope to restore Mobile is the first step in preparing this city for the population growth it deserves.

Now, to physically prepare for the future of Mobile’s economic and societal surge, we’ve learned to approach one residential area at a time. Rather than do what’s called “shotgunning” — or scattering our resources over multiple districts — we are most successful when we concentrate our efforts in a multi-block area, investing in homes that are clustered in a few blocks in a particular historic district. Doing so attracts attention from funders, homebuyers, realtors … and neighbors as well.

What can members of the community do to contribute to the process of restoration and the development?

The best thing our community can do is engage and ask questions. Cities like Savannah and neighborhoods like the French Quarter were famously saved by everyday people who just asked questions, engaged with their city governments and organized because they saw value in their historic past. It’s crucial that the public stay plugged in and informed. We have a resources page on our website where visitors can easily access links to meeting agendas for the City Council, Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission and others. They can also find helpful links to city departments and neighborhood organizations and watch our informative “Preservation Talks” video series.

If you could leave people with one piece of information that sums up Restore Mobile, what would it be?

Everybody loves the architecture, charm and culture of Mobile. We have to preserve it — and we do that together.

Break It Down for Us

How does Restore Mobile choose its houses?
We look for vacant homes, and usually they are threatened with demolition. Then we go through whatever channel we can to get it and save it. The houses are rarely on the market. A lot of times it’s tax sale properties or houses donated to us by the family, and sometimes we buy directly from the property owner. Houses on the market are priced too high for us and we are a nonprofit. It’s a house that nobody wants, and we want to stabilize it, fix it up and get it back into the community for someone to live in.

How do you get your funding?
We have a lot of different sources. Events, fundraising, donations, private foundations, city, state and federal grants. We can recycle funds — we take the proceeds from other houses that have sold and reinvest them in the next property.

What do you pay for each house?
That number has changed over time. When we were working in Texas Hills and Oakleigh in 2008 and 2009, the acquisition budget was $2,500. It was a recession and people weren’t buying and selling. Now we are a little bit challenged to find houses we are able to afford. In this neighborhood, Oakdale, we are actively looking for properties in the $25,000 range.

1105 Texas Street, Before & After

Are profits the goal of the renovation and sale?
Obviously, we want to be good stewards of foundation dollars. But we are also very aware of the markets where we are working. They are usually areas with so little investment that in order to attract a buyer, we often price the home below our investment. We want the price to be accessible so that the potential homeowner will be someone who has been in this community for decades or generations.

How do you choose your neighborhoods?
We look for a neighborhood with zero investment, a lot of vacant houses and a lot of demolitions happening. If we don’t go in and work on this district, nobody is. Oakdale is sandwiched between Oakleigh and Brookley, so it is primed for some type of investment in neighborhood revitalization.

How much do you invest in each project?
It takes about $150,000 – $175,000 to turn a vacant house back into use. But for some houses, we raise the funds to do just an exterior stabilization. We are stabilizing the house, preventing further deterioration and finding a buyer. That might take closer to $60,000.

How many properties has Restore Mobile preserved?
About 35 properties have been brought back to life through this organization. It’s an amazing impact.

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