Alabama Road Trip No. 45
Historic House Museums of Mobile
by Edith Parten
Mobile’s historic homes offer everything from antebellum mansions with spiraling staircases and moss-draped oak trees to Creole cottages and bungalows. Some of the other architectural styles you’ll see are Italianate, Greek Revival, Victorian and Revivalism. This Historic House Museums of Mobile Road Trip takes you on a tour where you’ll hear stories of the families that built the homes. You’ll see personal keepsakes, antiques, furniture and workmanship that make the stories come alive. From the grand Bragg-Mitchell Mansion to the simple Portier House, the historic house museums of Mobile are sure to provide a memorable experience for those who love history, architecture and a good story.
Mobile Historic Homes Tour
Each year in March, the Mobile Historic Preservation Society holds an annual Mobile Historic Homes Tour. The tour includes the Oakleigh and Bragg-Mitchell mansions in addition to many homes not normally open to the public.
Fort Conde (150 S. Royal St.; 251-208-7569) is the official visitor’s center for Mobile and is a great first stop for brochures, coupons and information on historic homes in the downtown area. Fort Conde is the site of the French fort built in 1723 to protect Mobile; however, it has been reconstructed and represents only about one-third the size of the original fort. Here you can see cannons, guns, old barracks and other artifacts from the era. Admission is free.
The Historic House Museums
The Conde-Charlotte Museum House (104 Theatre St.; 251-432-4722) is located next to Fort Conde and sits on land that originally housed the city jail. In fact, you can still see the jail cells in the garden out back. A small, square portion of the floor in the downstairs parlor is covered in Plexiglas to show the remnants of the old jail. You can see shackles, a bucket and utensils.
Outside the Conde-Charlotte Museum House you will see five flags that represent the entities that have ruled over Mobile during its 300-year history: France, Spain, Britain, the Confederate States of America and the U.S.. Also, each room is decorated with period furnishings depicting Mobile’s history under each of the five flags. The house was built by Jonathan Kirkbride and his wife, Elizabeth, in 1850. It is owned and operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Alabama. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday,. 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m., with the last guided tour starting at 3 p.m.
Oakleigh Historic Mansion (300 Oakleigh Place; 251-432-1281), the official period house of Mobile, is located in the Oakleigh Garden Historic District and sits at the highest elevation in the neighborhood. The two-story house was originally built as a gentlemen’s escape and is constructed of pine and cypress in a raised Greek Revival Villa style. It has belonged to several families through the years and has been modified. Plans to restore the Cook’s House at the back of the property are underway and scheduled for completion in August 2013. It is one of the city’s last standing detached kitchens and servants quarters. The Cook’s House will be a tour stop on the Mobile African-American Heritage Trail.
A few highlights to point out include the dinner table in the dining room; it’s one of the first pedestal tables. Also, according to docents, the wallpaper design in the dining room is replicated from a pattern on one of Martha Washington’s gowns. The children’s room upstairs overlooks the backyard and is equipped with period toys and dolls. It is scheduled to undergo reconstruction.
The Bragg-Mitchell Mansion (1906 Springhill Ave.; 251-471-6364) is located just outside downtown Mobile. You can’t miss the gorgeous expanse of lawn with a grove of tall oak trees draped in Spanish moss. Built in 1855, the antebellum home is indeed a grand Southern mansion with Greek Revival, Italianate and Georgian features throughout. It was built for Judge John Bragg who also owned a home in Lowndes County just outside Montgomery, but the Union Army destroyed that home.
When you walk through the front door into the large foyer, you will see a Waterford crystal chandelier and a beautiful staircase leading to the second floor. Although the house sat vacant for 15 years before opening as a museum, there are still a large number of furnishings original to the home.
A typical tour takes about an hour but expect to stay longer if you have questions. Be sure to take time to visit the gift shop on the second floor. During the tour of homes in April, the mansion offers afternoon tea. The home is open for tours Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. with the last tour starting at 3 p.m. The first Sunday in December, the mansion holds its holiday open house where you can see it decorated in all of its period Christmas finery. Tip: The mansion is the only historic home in Mobile equipped with an elevator, making it handicap accessible.
The Richards DAR House Museum (256 N. Joachim St., 251-208-7320) is an Italianate-style townhome built in 1860 for riverboat captain Charles Richards. It’s located in the De Tonti Square neighborhood on a small street just east of Dauphin. This is Mobile’s oldest neighborhood.
As you walk up the steps to the home, you will notice the ironwork on the porch. Look closely within the wrought iron to see the depiction of each of the four seasons.
Step through the front door and you will see the beautiful hand-carved mahogany staircase to the left. Turn around and view the beautiful ruby-red stained Bohemian glass framing the door. The furnishings in the home are not original, but they are period pieces dating from 1870 and earlier, which makes the Richards House the only house museum in Mobile where you can sit on the furniture, according to docents. The only original piece of furniture is the Weber box grand piano in the entryway.
In the dining room, you will see a coin silver tea set and just above it hangs a portrait of George Washington’s granddaughter. The docent tells the story that the granddaughter sold silver coins with her grandfather’s image to make the tea set. The fireplaces in the home are made of Carrara marble and display intricate workmanship.
The Portier House (307 Conti St.; 251-441-7138) is an example of Greek Revival, Creole cottage architecture and served as the residence of the Catholic bishop of Mobile from 1834-1906. The house was built on the site of a former Spanish burial ground. It is named after the first bishop of the diocese, Michael Portier. The house sits catty-corner to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Cathedral Square on the southeast corner of Conti and Claiborne streets. It is in the heart of the arts district.
Highlights of the house include the beautiful carved staircase, the Red Parlor, which was the business office of Bishop Portier, and the Yellow Parlor with a pre-Civil War box grand piano made of rosewood with mother-of-pearl inlays and a few original ivory keys. Stop by the gift shop for books, rosaries and a great selection of cross jewelry.
After it no longer served as a residence for the bishops, the house was a facility for the United Service Organization (USO) in the early 1940s, used as a meeting place for the Catholic Youth Organization in the 1950s, and was a private residence on numerous occasions before becoming a museum in 1978. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and is the oldest structure under continuous ownership of the diocese. It has been restored twice, once in 1958 and again in 2007. Guided tours are available Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
Worth the Drive
The Bellingrath Home (12401 Bellingrath Gardens Rd., Theodore; 251-973-2217) at Bellingrath Gardens (about 20 minutes from downtown Mobile) is a 15-room, 10,500-square-foot home built in 1935 and designed by prominent Mobile architect George B. Rogers. Wanting the architecture to reflect the Gulf Coast region, Rogers constructed the exterior from handmade brick salvaged from the 1852 birthplace of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont in Mobile. The ironwork also comes from Mobile, from the demolished Southern Hotel. The home features flagstone terraces, a central courtyard, balconies and covered galleries and a slate roof with copper downspouts. The stone paths throughout the gardens were taken from the old city sidewalks of Mobile. The architectural result was dubbed “English Renaissance” by Rogers.
Today, the Bellingrath Home appears as it did when the family lived in the house. It is open to visitors for daily tours from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. During Magic Christmas in Lights, tours end at 8 p.m.
All of the original furnishings are on display to guests including porcelain figurines from France and England along with Meissen porcelain from Germany. You’ll enjoy seeing the “ultra modern” pink bathrooms of 1935, the kitchen with its original appliances and state-of-the-art dishwasher, German silver countertops and sinks, and the butler’s pantry overflowing with a collection of silver, crystal and china that belonged to the home’s owners, Walter and Bessie Mae Bellingrath.
The adjoining guest house and garage was completed in 1939 and has housed a collection of Boehm porcelain since 1967. This fine American porcelain collection was a gift to the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation by the Delchamps family of Mobile. This building also serves as a visitor’s lounge and adjoins the family chapel.
After your visit to the home, stop at the Magnolia Café at the Bellingrath Gardens & Home Visitor’s Center and gift shop for a bite to eat. The chicken salad is listed in the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” brochure.
Where To Eat in Downtown Mobile
Spot of Tea (301 Dauphin St., 251-433-9009) is located in beautiful downtown Mobile across from Cathedral Square and the Portier House. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s a wide variety of menu choices that include Eggs Benedict Cathedral which is listed in the tourism brochure, “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.”
Wintzell’s Oyster House (605 Dauphin St., 251-432-4605) is famous for its oysters “fried, nude or stewed.” They also have a great selection of fresh seafood, salads, burgers and more. There are several locations on the Gulf Coast, but the one on Dauphin Street is the original.
Panini Pete’s (19 S. Conception St., 251-405-0031) serves specialty burgers, Panini sandwiches, hot dogs, salads and beignets. The Muffaletta Panino is listed in the tourism brochure “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” Hours are: Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m. –2 p.m., Sunday brunch, 11a.m.– 2:30 p.m.
Historical Places To Stay
The Fort Conde Inn (165 St. Emanuel St., 251-405-5040) is a boutique hotel located in an 1836 house, the second oldest in Mobile. It is tucked away behind Fort Conde on a quiet street surrounded by Victorian homes.
The inn and other surrounding historic homes were renovated and restored in 2010 to house guest rooms. The inn has 15 guest rooms and suites including the Blakely Cottage across the street. It serves a scrumptious breakfast prepared daily by the chef and served from 7:30 – 9 a.m.
The hotel manager, Alan Waugh, is a delight and very welcoming. Plans are underway to renovate several homes on the same street to add to the total number of rooms available. A pool, meeting center and bistro are also planned for the community that will be called Fort Conde Village.
Kate Shepard House (1552 Monterey Place, 251-479-7048). This Queen Anne home turned B&B was built in 1897 for Mr. C.M. Shepard by architect George F. Barber. Beginning in 1910, this home was used by Mr. Shepard’s daughter, Kate, for a private boarding school for prominent Mobile children. Today, the house is a B&B owned by Wendy and Bill James. The three rooms of the B&B will typically cost $160 per night. That includes a gourmet breakfast with offerings of Pecan Praline French Toast, Southern Scotch Eggs, biscuits, bacon and beignets.
Owners Wendy and Bill shared their story on HGTV’s “If Walls Could Talk.” You can see the video here on YouTube. The B&B is pet friendly.
Admiral Semmes Hotel (251 Government St., 251-432-8000). This historical property opened its doors in 1940 and was the first building in Mobile with air conditioning. The hotel has 152 guestrooms appointed with traditional custom furnishings of Chippendale and Queen Anne styles. All accommodations feature a comfortable lounge chair with ottoman, an elegant armoire with separate vanity. The hotel has a pool, courtyard and Oliver’s restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch.
The Battle House Renaissance Hotel (26 N. Royal St., 251-338-2000) is a AAA Four Diamond historic hotel in the heart of downtown Mobile with 207 rooms and 31 suites.
Three restaurants in the hotel, the Joe Cain Café, Trellis Room and the Royal Street Tavern offer breakfast, lunch and dinner. The spa and pool are located across the street, but it’s easy to get to from the skywalk of the hotel. The hotel is pet friendly.
Points of Interest
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