The Alabama City by the Bay Puts its Own Special Stamp on the Gulf
By Arnold Berke | From Preservation | Spring 2013
Like many port cities, Mobile mixes local with foreign. Presiding over Mobile Bay, passage to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, the city feels Southern yet worldly, familiar and slightly exotic. Names like Dauphin, Bienville, and De Tonti dot the map; balmy, salt-tinged air embraces classic houses, monumental churches and civic buildings, canopied streets, and squares. Shaded porches and iron filigree abound.
An easygoing pace belies an often stormy history—starting in 1702 as French Louisiana’s first capital and then falling under British, Spanish, Confederate, and American rule. Most of the town’s stunning Greek Revival architecture was built during the pre-Civil War era, when Mobile enjoyed its golden age as supplier of cotton to the world. Post-war, Mobile revived itself as an exporter and importer, adding Victorian and later styles to the gumbo.
Mobile loves to party, parading pets at Woofstock and dropping a huge imitation MoonPie pastry on New Year’s Eve in lieu of Times Square’s crystal ball. But nothing tops Mardi Gras (America’s first, locals point out), celebrated with a baroque exuberance all its own. No wonder native son and writer Eugene Walter called Mobile “sweet lunacy’s county seat.”
Seeking the best of this uncommon city, Preservation consulted three long-time Mobilians:
- John Sledge, architectural historian with the Mobile Historic Development Commission and author of An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork and The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile
- L. Craig Roberts, architect, Mobile Architectural Review Board member, and tour guide to historic landmarks and districts
- Roy Hoffman, novelist, journalist, and former Mobile Press-Register writer whose books include Back Home: Journeys through Mobile, Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations, and Chicken Dreaming Corn
Crab, oysters, shrimp, red snapper, flounder: Gulf seafood crowns every menu. Sledge sends visitors to Felix’s Fish Camp Grill, on the Mobile Bay causeway. “It’s built like a big old fish camp, with rusted tin all over,” he says, praising the West Indies Salad, a locally born marination of crabmeat and onions.
His other causeway picks: the Original Oyster House (“really good alligator bites”), Ed’s Seafood Shed, and BLUEGILL. Downtown, he favors Wintzell’s Oyster House, in Mobile’s oldest commercial frame structure, where the bivalves are shucked right in front of you.
“Locals love the fresh seafood at Lighthouse Restaurant, down in Bayou La Batre,” says Roberts. “Ask for the fried crab claws!” These meaty drumettes are another Mobile original. For upmarket dining downtown, he suggests The Bull or NoJa, modern American and Mediterranean/Asian, respectively. If you are looking for an all-around diner, try Spot of Tea, in an 1836 building on Cathedral Square, offering more than 30 sandwiches. Its most popular dish is the thick C.J.’s Cayenne Crab Bisque, with a crab cake floating on top.
“Stop into the A & M Peanut Shop,” says Hoffman. “Look at the old-time roaster, take a whiff, be transported by the aroma. Get a bag of hot peanuts to shell and eat as you explore downtown.” Crossing the bay to the town of Fairhope? The Fairhope Inn and Camellia Café are “the two best upscale places to dine.” For the sweet tooth, Punta Clara Kitchen “is praline and fudge happiness.”
A lovely place downtown is Fort Conde Inn, Roberts says. Opened in 2011 in the restored Hall-Ford House (1836), the inn anchors Fort Conde Village, an enclave of renovated properties. He also recommends The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa, “a grand hostelry sporting a most incredible lobby from the early 1900s.” The hotel, a National Trust Historic Hotel of America (HHA), reopened in 2007 after a comprehensive renovation.
Hoffman praises The Battle House, as well, for “evoking a sense of the past” and “displaying works by the area’s best artists—above all Nall Hollis, whose paintings, collages, and prints capture the sense of the Gulf Coast.” He cites another HHA, the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa on a picturesque promontory near Fairhope. “You can lose yourself on the grounds.”
Sledge picks the Malaga Inn in Mobile, joining two town houses built in 1862. “They have cast-iron galleries, an interior courtyard with a fountain, and rooms furnished with antiques or reproductions. It feels like old money—completely charming.”
The best start, our three agree, is the History Museum of Mobile in the 1855 Southern Market/Old City Hall, “laid out so you get a physical and chronological sense of place,” says Hoffman, “a paradigm for an actual stroll through downtown.” Take that trek up Dauphin Street at Bienville Square, past the old stores that constituted the mercantile heart of the city—an area now reawakening with revived landmarks such as the 1927 Saenger Theatre.
Dauphin anchors Lower Dauphin Street Historic District, one of the city’s seven historic districts. To tour them, says Roberts, get the official guide at the visitors center at Fort Condé. Dauphin and Church Street East are walkable from downtown hotels, but the larger outlying districts are best by car.
Roberts touts Mobile’s antebellum churches, Christ Church Cathedral (“outstanding stained glass”), Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, and Government Street Presbyterian, as well as these stately antebellum homes: Oakleigh, Condé-Charlotte House, Portier House, Bragg-Mitchell Mansion, and Richards DAR House.
The Mobile Carnival Museum illuminates all things Mardi Gras with an eye-popping accumulation of costumes, memorabilia, music, and lore from the weeks-long hurly-burly when “sweet lunacy” reigns. “It may be the most unique thing you’ll do,” says Roberts.
Sledge steers sightseers to Mobile’s historic cemeteries, with intricate ironwork and funerary sculpture, including Church Street Graveyard, dating to 1819. And he lauds the innovative African-American Heritage Trail, linking 40 sites that tell the story of “our very distinctive and proud black culture.”
Cap your visit by exploring Mobile Bay. Start at Bellingrath Gardens and Home, the 1930s Eden of Mobile’s first Coca-Cola bottler. Tour Fort Gaines, an old federal citadel guarding the bay’s entry, then ferry to Fort Morgan. Take scenic Route 98 to Point Clear and ogle gorgeous mansions on its seaside walk. Before crossing the bay back to Mobile, tarry in Fairhope, a resort and arts haven founded as a utopian town in the 1890s. “The Fairhope Museum of History has lots of local stories,” says Sledge, “and the views and sunsets from the public park are spectacular.”
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