Roadside Retro

Roadside stores, restaurants and motel rooms are notoriously ephemeral. They are all stops along the way to somewhere else. Still, highway architecture can be memorable. Old Spanish Fort Tourist Village is one of those short-lived, yet unforgettable, attractions.

The imaginative George E. Fuller Sr., of Spanish Fort, dreamed up and built the tourist site. After he lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash, Fuller moved from Chicago to Fairhope to start over as a movie theater proprietor. But he found that bigger potential lay on the tract of land 7 miles east of Mobile that would become Old Spanish Fort Tourist Village.

First, he built a gas station to serve motorists. Then, in 1935, when his wife inherited wealth from her father, Fuller anchored the village with an ele-gant building that he had designed. It featured Mission Revival architecture, complete with a baroque parapet gable. The structure housed a restaurant, and a motor court was situated in back. Quaint cottages and a trailer park stood behind the anchor building, screened from the whir of the highway.

A neatly attired pitchman was regularly perched outside the restaurant, ringing a handbell and calling out for motorists to stop inside. When travelers began routinely asking where the town’s namesake Spanish Fort could be found, Fuller playfully responded by adding a small, one-and-a-half-story tower with stairs inside for the curious to climb. It looked like a castle turret and doubled as the village office.

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Ever the entrepreneur, Fuller bought surrounding land during the 1940s and started building subdivisions with his son David in 1949. At the time, Mobile was making national news. Time magazine reported the city as the nation’s sixth busiest seaport, even though it was ranked the nation’s 118th largest. Mobile grew rapidly in that postwar period. Many who sought work in the expanding economy eagerly sought out homes in the Fullers’ subdivisions.

With economic growth came more landscape changes. The Fullers built a new motel and restaurant across the road, and eventually the original, vacant village fell victim to the progress of the modern shopping center. By 1968, the building was torn down. Sons George and David formed Fuller Brothers Real Estate in Spanish Fort to build on the work their father had begun.

Keith A. Sculle

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