Steve Stephens More Content Now
May 21, 2018 at 9:45 AM
MOBILE, Alabama — In this 300-year-old Gulf Coast city, home is where the heart (of history) is.
Visitors to Mobile’s pretty, oak-shaded streets can see the best of the city’s past at five different historic house museums. Four are classic antebellum structures. The other is a 1930s riverfront beauty that’s surrounded by a huge public garden.
Here are some highlights from each:
First built in the 1820s as the town jail, the Conde-Charlotte House in downtown Mobile is one of the oldest structures remaining in the city.
The building was converted to a house in the 1850s, although cell doors can still be seen in an old wall.
Today, the structure is operated as a museum by the Alabama chapter of the women’s group Colonial Dames of America. The organization has furnished the restored house in a unique and interesting way, with individual rooms decorated in period styles reflecting Mobile’s heritage under five different flags.
A tour through the house is like a quick jaunt through the city’s history.
Mobile was founded as the capital of colonial French Louisiana; one sitting room represents Napoleonic France.
The British took over in 1763 after the Seven Years War. To commemorate that era, another room of the house is furnished as a British army officer’s study.
During the American Revolution, the Spanish captured the area from the British, and the house’s pretty courtyard re-creates a walled, Spanish-style garden of the late 18th century.
Mobile became part of the United States in 1813, represented by the American Federal-style dining room.
And the home’s two parlors are decorated and furnished in the style of typical Southern homes during the Civil War, when the city was part of the Confederacy.
For a deeper look at city history, visitors can also walk about two blocks from the Conde-Charlotte House to the History Museum of Mobile. The museum is located in the historic 1857 Southern Market building, which also once served as Mobile City Hall.
Located in what was once the countryside at the edge of town is Oakleigh House, built in 1833. Today, the historic Greek Revival-style mansion is at the center of a lovely neighborhood that sprang up around it, the Oakleigh Garden Historic District.
Oakleigh was the pride of a wealthy cotton baron. It’s a prototypical antebellum Southern mansion, or at least what I think of when I imagine such a structure, with white column-lined porches shaded by massive live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
Visitors to Oakleigh will also see another important bit of Mobile history, a Union Army barracks built by Union troops during Reconstruction in 1867.
Constructed in 1855 by a local judge and plantation owner, the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion is another Greek-Revival beauty, a 13,000-square-foot behemoth with two-story Doric columns dwarfed by the centuries-old live oaks on the lawn.
Bragg-Mitchell is probably the grandest of Mobile’s old mansions and is remarkably well-preserved and maintained. The house was last privately owned by the wealthy Mitchell family, who bequeathed it to a foundation to be operated as a science museum.
In a win-win for fans of science and architectural history, the museum later moved downtown (it’s now the large, modern Gulf Coast Exploreum), and the house was restored to its original antebellum grandeur.
Bellingrath Home and Garden
Surprisingly, my favorite among Mobile’s house museums was actually the youngest, Bellingrath Home and Garden.
Bellingrath, located about 20 miles south of the city, was owned by wealthy Coca-Cola bottler Walter Bellingrath and his wife Bessie.
The 15-room Bellingrath house was finished in 1935, a melange of modern Gulf Coast architectural styles built using antique local brick and ornamented with antique iron galleries — a very pleasing effort that still feels quite modern. The home is outfitted with its original furniture and porcelain, silver and crystal collected by Mrs. Bellingrath, who had a fine eye for antiques.
Outshining the gorgeous house, though, is Bellingrath’s 65-acre garden, an outstanding and well-known horticultural attraction that draws visitors from across the country.
Mr. Bellingrath bought the property on the Fowl River in 1917 as a fishing camp. The couple soon hired a landscape architect and began planning a vast country estate.
By 1932, before the house was even started, the couple was so proud of the grounds and gardens that they took out an ad in a local newspaper and invited the public for a tour, a tradition that now continues year-round. And Bellingrath claims that visitors can see beautiful blooms somewhere in the garden every day of the year.
Among the many features of the property are a conservatory, rose garden, camellia parterre, Asian-American garden, bayou boardwalk and rock garden.
Bessie Bellingrath died in 1943. When her husband died 12 years later, he bequeathed the property to a foundation to operate as a public memorial to Mrs. Bellingrath and to preserve the home and garden they loved so well.
Richards DAR House Museum
Another women’s group, the Daughters of the American Revolution, maintains and presides at the Richards DAR House Museum just a few blocks from the center of town.
Built in 1860 by a well-to-do riverboat captain, the brick Italianate house is decorated with Victorian-era furniture of the period.
In later years, the Ideal Cement Company used the structure as offices and as a company guest house. The company updated the building with modern utilities, but, happily, preserved many of its historic features and donated it to the city in 1972.
Today, the house is still outfitted with original brass gasoliers, ruby Bohemian cut-glass skylights and Carrara marble mantle pieces. The most striking feature of the house, though, is the magnificently detailed and recently renovated exterior ironwork, one of the finest examples in a city filled with beautiful iron railings and fences.
One delightful tradition sets the Richards House apart from other house museums: After a tour, visitors are welcome to stop in the small office/gift shop for a complimentary cup of “spice tea” and cookies with their DAR tour guide. It’s a homey touch, and a great way to finish a day touring historic houses in Mobile.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.