During the 1960s and 1970s, Mobile experienced more physical change than at any other time in its 300-plus year history. Interstates 10, 165, and 10, coupled with a host of urban renewal programs, eradicated thousands of buildings and displaced the communities that enlivened them. The physical and emotional traumas that the Port City underwent continue to reverberate today. During this period of transformation, local architect Eugene H. Gray (1909-1999) championed traditional design. While whole swaths of Mobile’s historical fabric were being torn down, Gray designed dozens of buildings that more than evoked the past — they improved upon it. His creations, almost all residences and largely in Spring Hill, were inspired by historic architecture, particularly that of the American South. A celebration of Eugene Gray and four of his designs (including his personal residence) prove that even during Mobile’s darkest historic preservation moments, the allure of the past was not simply palpable, but polished.
Eugene Haughton Gray was born in 1909 in Meridian, Mississippi. As a small child, his parents moved to Mobile where he attended Barton Academy. Following his high school studies, Gray matriculated at Alabama Polytechnic University (Auburn University), where he earned a degree in architecture and engineering. He would join the faculty of his alma mater after earning his degree. Auburn’s School of Architecture, the fourth oldest in the South, was shifting its focus from a purely Beaux Arts approach, which is anchored in the study of the past, to a curriculum that eschewed architectural history and focused on the modern. Gray preferred the former. As early as 1939, in a lecture before the Mobile Garden Club, Gray advocated for historical precedent in both architectural and landscape design. Following patriotic service during World War II, Gray returned to Alabama, and ultimately Mobile. He married his childhood sweetheart, Dorris Beaven Dunaway, in 1959.
The Grays resided in Spring Hill for several years before buying a house that was slated for demolition near Downtown. In 1967, the couple relocated the endangered single-story center hall dwelling to Old Shell Road and Margaret Street in the heart of Midtown. After the house was relocated, Gray replaced a wooden porch with a cast iron gallery (Mobilians love their iron lace). Eugene Gray’s gallery is perfectly scaled, and hints at his future commissions in that he looked to local design traditions for inspiration. As with so many of his projects, Gray gave the grounds of his estate the same level of scrutiny and finish as the house itself.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a busy time for Gray. Some his greatest designs date from that period. While he was rehabilitating his own home, he designed a fantastic coastal cottage for Gordon and Gary Stimpson. The latter later recalled that the couple was inspired by one-and-a-half story gabled and dormered residences over the Bay in Point Clear. Gray took heed of his client’s vision. The Stimpson house faithfully replicated the Carolina or Rain Porch found on so many Gulf Coast dwellings. In this construction, an umbrage’s columns rest not on the porch deck, but upon piers placed in advance of and independent of the porch itself. Carolina porches offered additional protection for porch decking from rot, more living space and increased shade for interiors. Gray did not neglect the inside of his designs. In the Stimpson house, formal entertaining rooms flank a central hall. The living and dining rooms, like the front windows, feature Greek door surrounds. Often called “Egyptian Doors,” these openings have slightly flared frames, eared or logged tops that rake to peak. A kitchen and service wing is to one side of the house and a bedroom wing to the other. A cross hall and a den connect the two halves of the delightful whole. The den features top-notch black walnut paneling, most appropriate for a lumber man like Stimpson, while the floors are handpicked, knot-free heat pine. Later bought and lovingly maintained by Mitch and Katharine Shackleford, nephew and niece-in-law of the original owner, the Stimpson house is the best Mid-Century traditional take on Old Mobile architecture. Think Southern Colonial Revival, only better!
At the same time as he was designing the Gordon Stimpson House, Eugene Gray created another revivalist house with a different design pedigree for John and Margaret “Sister” Adams. Superficially, the Adams house has many of the same ingredients as the Stimpson house (one-and-a-half stories, front porch, dormers, symmetry), only the seasonings and cut are different. Gray and Sister Adams looked to Colonial Virginia, not the Gulf Coast, for both architecture and landscape. In its massing, elements, and detailing, the Adams house borrows from multiple buildings on Williamsburg’s famous Duke of Gloucester Street. The landscaping — boxwood beds and a cobbled drive — looked to the Tidewater. The interior of the Adams house blends Georgian and Federal forms. A delicious curvilinear staircase, Gray’s signature touch, enlivens the entrance hall. Rooms, formal and private, feature fabulous woodwork. When Sister Adams downsized, she sold her beloved home to Ben and Victoria Stimpson. Bucking a trend in Country Club Estates, the Stimpsons preserved the original house and constructed additions to the rear of the house.
One of Eugene Gray’s most impressive creations is a grand house designed for Burgess and Ellen Thomasson. Completed in 1973, the house is one of three Gray designed on Austill Place. Located on the “back lot” of one of the three Collins-Austill properties in Spring Hill, Austill Place had been developed in the decade leading up to the construction of the Thomasson House. Mr. and Mrs. Thomasson and Gray based the design of the house on Powhatan, an 18th Century plantation house in James City County, Virginia. Though not as well-known as Carter’s Grove, Berkeley, or other Virginia mansions, Powhatan is one of the finest Georgian houses constructed in the British colonies. The two-story, double pile form, five-bay façade, and crowning hipped roof were replicated exactingly. Here too, the undulating grounds received the utmost in terms of design consideration, right down to the last boxwood. In recent years, Jason Bell and
Marion McElroy purchased and refurbished the landmark dwelling. This is a property that will continue to improve in the
decades to come, which is quite a statement, but an evolution that the interior designer and architect owners are more than capable of realizing.
CLOSER INSPECTION: For many, the devil might be in the details, but not so for Eugene Gray. The architect reveled in every aspect of building. With his contractor of choice, Bill Cherry, Gray employed cobbled drives, hand-cut shutter dogs and expert bonding for the Adams-Stimpson (top) and Burgess-Bell-McElroy (bottom) houses.
A relocated historic dwelling, a house inspired by architecture of the Gulf Coast, a home that draws from multiple historic examples and an exacting replica of a Southern landmark represent the four approaches Eugene H. Gray took to architectural design. During a time when few architects were embracing the past in a thoughtful manner, Gray took inspiration from the constructions, styles and features of historical epochs preceding him. Four properties highlighted in this article hint at the lasting legacy Eugene Gray bestowed upon Mobile and the continued relevance of the design past in the present day.