By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007
The Kate Shepard House -- a Queen Anne home in Mobile, Ala., with a stately turret, ornate latticework and second-floor balcony -- seemed to have something to say, and so I listened. The separate pieces of it were constructed 500 miles away in Tennessee, back in 1897, and then shipped from Knoxville by train in 13 boxcars and assembled in Mobile. The owner, a Mobile railroad executive, had ordered it from a catalogue.
Wendy James, who with her husband, Bill, now runs the 13-room mail-order manse as a bed-and-breakfast, told me this nugget of house history as I checked in for a long weekend stay. But there was more. They had found a cache of documents in the attic that would seal a place in Civil War history for the Shepard family, the original owners, and for the house as well. She'd share the details in the morning.
Oh, the stories Mobile's mansions tell. In this slow-paced city lining the banks of Mobile Bay, the former residences of cotton merchants, maritime traders and landed gentry could be chatty characters in a Eudora Welty novel.
I devoted a three-day weekend to touring Mobile's architectural riches. Spring, when a rush of azaleas adorns many front lawns, and Mardi Gras week are the high seasons, but fall and winter are better times for a quieter architectural excursion. Although Hurricane Katrina wreaked destruction here in 2005, I saw few signs of it during my stay.
Battle House, a remnant of an era when travelers didn't dare appear in the hotel lobby without donning hats, coats and ties, is a high point of any architectural visit. The hotel was constructed in 1852, ravaged by a fire in 1905, rebuilt, then closed in 1974. After a full-scale restoration, it is once again a stately structure, crowned by a century-old colored-glass ceiling covering the massive lobby.
I also went gaga over the historic Oakleigh House, whose owner invested his fortune in the ornate Greek Revival structure and ended up bankrupt. Another favorite was Bellingrath Gardens and Home, 15 elegant rooms surrounded by one of the South's premier gardens. Finally, there was the smaller-scale Kate Shepard House, where I spent two nights.
These old buildings are Mobile's treasures and the strongest legacy of the city's special place in Southern history. Established as the capital of French Louisiana in 1702 and ruled by Spaniards from 1780 to 1813, it was at once a stronghold of Europe and a thriving port in the South. Eventually the city was dwarfed in style and population by New Orleans, a two-hour drive south; in the 1970s, Mobile's economy slumped and it fell off the traveler's path. In recent years, however, a vigorous push by local preservationists to breathe life into historic buildings has made Mobile a draw for visitors.
A good guidebook and the elaborate architectural map created by the Mobile Historic Development Commission are all you need for a self-guided tour. Fanning out from the downtown area are examples of a wide range of building styles: Greek Revival and Italianate, bungalow and neoclassical.
Of the city's seven historic districts, I was most intrigued by Oakleigh Garden and Detonti Square -- gilded residential neighborhoods near the city center, where lacy cast-iron gates give way to dazzling gardens and regal homes. There's also much to see in the Lower Dauphin Street commercial district, starting with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with its classical portico, steeples and cast-iron fence.
Battle House is a good starting point. Every Mobilean of a certain age has a Battle House story to tell; for decades the hotel had been the backdrop for Mardi Gras balls, weddings and other celebrations. Students of Southern history trivia know it, too. Stephen A. Douglas stayed here the night he was defeated by Abraham Lincoln for the presidency in 1860. When Alabama seceded from the Union, the announcement was made from a Battle House balcony.
In a bid to bring back that exalted stature, developers mounted a four-year, $220 million restoration, completed in May. Pains were taken to re-create the original spacious, rotunda-shaped lobby, a handsome room surrounded by columns, adorned with balconies and crowned by a spectacular colored-glass ceiling. The guest rooms (which start at $169 a night) are contemporary in design, but the feel of historic Mobile is recaptured in the spacious Crystal Ballroom, with its curving staircase and row of crystal chandeliers. A 35-foot "whispering arch" on the second floor, which allows a whisper in one corner to be heard on the other side, adds a touch of intrigue.
Oakleigh, a mile west of downtown, is more intimate. With pillars rising out front, surrounded by 3 1/2 lush acres, the 1830s Greek Revival-style home, now a museum, looks every bit the country estate it was. James Roper, the original owner, was a cotton trader who was hit by the Panic of 1837. Unable to repay the $20,000 he had borrowed to build the house, he sold it to his brother-in-law, who allowed him to live in it rent-free.
A guide dressed in 19th-century garb points out the house's unique details: a piano with keys made of mother-of-pearl, a cantilevered front staircase, grandly decorated back-to-back parlors. With a small cottage used as slave quarters out back and a mid-level property built for servants also on the grounds, the Oakleigh museum complex reflects 19th-century Mobile life.
Eager to see the Alabama countryside, I drove a half-hour southwest to the grounds of the Bellingrath Gardens and Home. The 68 acres of flowers and exotic flora, including more than 200,000 azaleas, camellias and roses, are the major attraction here. But the home, on the banks of the Fowl River, is just as impressive. Paula Moore, the longtime caretaker, led me through all 15 rooms, pausing to point out Limoges porcelain, Chippendale dining furniture, antique Coca-Cola bottles and Bohemian decanters. An adjoining guest house features one of the biggest collections of Boehm porcelain in the world.
Moore also told of the philanthropy of the house's original owners, Coca-Cola executive Walter Bellingrath and his wife, Bessie. Often locals in need of money would arrive at the house selling off pieces of pottery or silver from their homes. Usually, Moore said, Bessie would give them far more than the value of the pieces and then give the items away.
The next day I focused on my own slice of Mobile's past, the Kate Shepard B&B. Co-owner Wendy James has decked out the guest rooms and common areas with a mix of antiques and reproductions: antique ships and maps, a grand piano and handsome wooden four-poster beds. Over a cup of rich, dark coffee, she told me how she and her husband, cleaning out the attic in 2003, had found several dozen boxes of papers that documented how England had helped finance the Confederate Army's arms purchases.
In the early 1900s, the house had belonged to Kate McRae Shepard. Her grandmother had been the sister of Colin McRae, an agent in Europe for the Confederate government. The documents, which show how the South financed its purchases during the Civil War and how they got to the South, were bought last year for more than $250,000 by the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room in Columbia.
Later, James and I took a driving tour of the Oakleigh Garden Historic District, one of the most alluring residential neighborhoods in the city. There were pretty 19th-century frame houses around Washington Square and an elaborate Queen Anne mansion on Government Street. The Lott House, a Classical Revival number on Rapier Avenue, was particularly stunning.
They looked like they had stories to tell.