With 300-plus years of history, popular perceptions of what defines Mobile run the gamut. Among the most pervasive architectural manifestations of the city is the side hall with wing residential compound. At one time, over 400 of these domestic ensembles lined Mobile’s fashionable thoroughfares. Sadly, less than 40 examples survive today. The side hall with wing was — and still remains — the Port City’s equivalent to the Charleston single house and the New York City row house. Examining this property and the motivating factors behind its design, and spotlighting notable examples around the city, demonstrates the enduring appeal of this distinctive Mobile architectural idiom.
The moniker side hall with wing is no misnomer. The building is a multi-story residence featuring a side hall with rooms to one side and a wing or wings behind them. The house itself is part of a larger whole that starts from the front of a lot and goes to the back of it, often involving indoor and outdoor spaces. The experience of a side hall with wing property begins on the sidewalk. Cast-iron fences, with gates bearing the names of their occupants, invariably enclose the front lawn. Brick or marble paths lead the way to lacy iron galleries or columned porticos that extended the length of the side hall and the rooms to one side of it. Sometimes, the recessed wing is graced by a porch or bay window. Upon entering the hall, you encounter a staircase, often set behind an archway. Doors from the hall lead to “double parlors,” which are separated, yet connected, by pocket doors that slide into wall cavities. Rear parlors often functioned as formal dining rooms. A third, more family-attuned, room formed the front portion of the recessed wing. Bedrooms occupy the upper stories. Service wings extend from the rear of the house and were originally occupied by pantries, kitchens, laundries, privies, and lodging for staff. These spaces were also graced by galleries. Carriage drives provided access to the courtyards, which were often encircled by carriage houses, stables, garconniere, poultry houses and other buildings.
“Mobile’s elegant side hall with wing townhouses communicate an especial Gulf Coast ambience. Well proportioned, spacious, and beautifully bedecked by verandahs these architectural gems ennoble our city.” – John S. Sledge
The earliest documented side hall with wing compounds date back to the late 1840s. They continued to be built well into the 1870s and were the house design of choice for Mobile’s civic, mercantile and social elite. Just what did the side hall with wing houses provide their owners? The ensembles afforded maximum use of urban lots, air circulation, accommodation of grand entertainments and a balance of public and private spaces. Houses with this design were typically set back from the street, thereby providing distance from city noises and smells. Because they were free-standing compounds, these houses provided breaks from the fires that so often ravaged downtown Mobile during the 19th century. Ceilings as high as 14 feet and rooms featuring windows on multiple walls allowed heat to rise and exit the house. Halls and pocket doors served to better the flow of air and people, with the doors also providing separation. Jib windows, which have a casement opening in their lower portions that swings outward and sashes above that rise into the wall cavity, allowed for entry to and exit from rooms to galleries. Located on the upper floors, bedrooms were afforded a measure of privacy. Service wings located to the rear of the main block removed cooking and preparation of food from the main body of the house but still kept them within close reach.
Even though less than 40 of these iconic properties survive in Mobile, those still standing are some of the best known in the Port City. The Richards (DAR) House, Bernstein-Bush House, which is now the Mobile Carnival Museum, and Gilmore-Gaines-Quigley House, now Distinguished Young Women headquarters, are three of the most readily accessible to the public. Privately and institutional-owned instances of this design include the St. John-Rutherford House on North Conception Street, Hamilton-Snider House on Church Street and Bush-Mohr House on St. Anthony Street.
The amazing pictorial archives of the Historic American Building Survey, Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, and the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Collection hold hundreds of pictures of side hall with wings. Writers such as Eugene Walter and Julian Rayford used the compounds as settings for their writings. Artists, including Marian Acker Macpherson and John Augustus Walker, captured the properties in etchings and oils. A visit downtown provides a firsthand experience of these iconic Mobile landmarks.
How to identify a side hall with wing
- Built 1840-1870’s
- Housing type of choice of prominent Mobilians
- Multi-story houses with large service wings
- Generally made of brick
- Street-facing galleries
- Cast-iron fencing abutting the sidewalk
- Greek Revival and Italianate in style
On account of its corner location, this house affords optimal vantage points by which to experience a side hall with wing property. Today the building is the headquarters of Distinguished Young Women. This photograph was taken as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress) in 1933.
The Bernstein-Bush House
Now headquarters for the Mobile Carnival Museum, this home was built as a residence in the 1870s. This rendering of the large dwelling was executed by local artist Marian Acker Macpherson and is included in her “Glimpses of Old Mobile.”
Richards (DAR) House
The best known side hall with wing in Mobile, this museum house on North Joachim also has Mobile’s most important figural cast ironwork.