John B. Waterman, C.W. Hempstead, and Walter Bellingrath organized the Waterman Steamship Corporation in 1919 in response to the city’s poor port facilities during World War I. Industrial leaders in Birmingham soon matched the large financial investments by the three men and the company bought its first ship, the Eastern Sun, in 1920.
In less than 20 years, the Waterman Steamship Corporation became one of Mobile’s greatest industries. John Waterman’s political connections with powerful Alabama senator Oscar Underwood helped secure a government contract for all Federal shipping from Mobile and by 1927, the company had expanded its routes from Europe and added a line to Puerto Rico. The expansion of the Waterman Corporation continued as war erupted in Europe and Mobile once again became a “war town” during World War II. After the war, members of Mobile’s business elite were unwilling to see the city go backwards and many invested heavily in the city’s infrastructure. One of the most striking contributions to Mobile’s post-war economy was the construction of the new corporate home of the Waterman Steamship Corporation on St. Joseph Street, a towering building that became, as one booster stated, “the boldest testament that Mobile had entered the Modern Age.” Completed in 1948, the building cost an unthinkable $5 million dollars. Today, the building would cost $45 million.
Employees moved into the Waterman Building in December 1948 but the official opening of the building for public inspection was delayed for almost two years while the final touches to the two-story main lobby were completed. The Waterman Corporation ran a public invitation in the Press Register and opened its doors on March 3, 1950. Thousands of Mobilians poured over every floor of the new building during the two-day event. The building remained open until 9 p.m. both days to accommodate the large crowds.
By far, the most arresting feature in the new building was the globe. The monumental twelve-foot structure quietly rotated in the center of the lobby, flanked by a large brass railing and murals by a Louisiana artist. Built by Rand McNally in 1948 at a cost exceeding $40, 000, the globe had a scale of 1:55 and made a complete rotation every two minutes. At the time only two other such globes existed, in the lobbies of the New York Daily News and the Iowa Chronicle. Mobile featured prominently on the globe, the only city represented out of proportion. A large flag in the Pacific Ocean represented the Waterman Corporation. Field trips to the globe became an annual event for local schools thereafter. The lobby of the Waterman Building was so popular that two women were employed full-time as greeters and tour guides.
For almost twenty-five years, school children and visitors marveled at the rotating sphere. The Waterman Corporation became one of the world’s largest deep-water shipping industries. In 1955, McLean Industries purchased the corporation and its subsidiaries. The Waterman Building–renamed for E.A. Roberts in honor of Waterman’s last chairman–remained an important part of McLean Industries for another twenty years.
In 1973, the Commercial Guaranty Banking Company purchased the Roberts Building and the immaculate lobby was transformed into a teller’s office. The globe was quickly disassembled and unceremoniously removed from the building.
In 1978, University of South Alabama acquired the globe and made plans to display it in a new physical education building. But the construction project was delayed and the globe remained in storage until 1998 when it was installed in the lobby of the university’s basketball complex, the Mitchell Center. More than a half-century after it was first unveiled, the Globe remains a marvel for children and tourists and remains one of Mobile’s most fondly-remembered landmarks.
Scotty E. Kirkland