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TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE- The Oaks and Arts of Mobile, Ala., Thrive Amid History PDF Print E-mail
Written by Priscilla Lister Creative Syndicate   
Thursday, 13 September 2012 02:11

The live oak trees in Mobile, Ala., are so beloved that the state legislature ordained the Mobile Tree Commission in 1961 to protect them, making it unlawful to trim or cut one down within the city's seven historic districts without approval. It's one of the oldest such tree commissions in the United States in one of the oldest cities in the Southeast, where many of the magnificent trees have withstood hurricane after hurricane to live up to 450 years.

Craig Roberts, a local architect and artist known for designing "new old houses" in this beautiful city since 1979, led my companions and me on an architectural tour through his adopted hometown, regaling us with stories while sharing details of the homes and buildings that preserve Mobile's heritage. He drove us through most of the seven historic districts that encompass some 600 square blocks where 5,836 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places — "one of the highest percentages in the United States," he said.

Two of those historic districts are centered on Dauphin Street, the city's main commercial corridor since its founding in 1702 by the French when they tried to build an empire in America by way of the Louisiana Territory.

Dauphin Street was named for the son of France's King Louis XIV. "Like walkin' down Dauphin Street" came to mean anything of exceptional quality.

Roberts took us to Christ Church Cathedral, the oldest church in Alabama, dating from 1822, whose classic Greek Revival building features 12 stained-glass windows, including two by Tiffany. Across the street is Mobile's 1855 City Hall, the oldest city hall building still in use in the country.

Buildings dating to before the Civil War are somewhat rare in Mobile, Roberts told us.

"Fire is Mobile's tragedy — everything before the Civil War burned. And in 1865, after the war ended, a third of the city was destroyed by an explosion in a munitions building."

On Church Street, in the No. 1 historic district immediately south of Lower Dauphin Street, all the classic architectural styles are on view — Greek Revival (favored from 1800-1850, features Doric columns across front), Italianate (1850-1890, flat roofs, big corbels, cast-iron front porches) and Queen Anne — "Victorian on steroids" (1890- 1910, peaked, embellished roofs).

Also here is the Church Street Graveyard, the oldest in Mobile, where 1,250 people were buried from 1819 to 1898. All the graves face sunrise, and one is always adorned with tokens of love: doubloons, red roses and lots of Mardi Gras beads.

This country's first Mardi Gras celebration was in Mobile in 1703, a claim to fame Mobilians love to cite. In fact, Mobile was the capital of French Louisiana until it was moved to New Orleans in 1722.

Before the Civil War, Mobile was the third busiest port in the fledgling United States, and its citizens were wealthy from lumber and shipping — two industries that remain strong today.

But the war curtailed the Mardi Gras partying until 1866, when Joe Cain, local bon vivant, dressed up as chief of the Chickasaw Indians and paraded with friends through downtown for Mardi Gras. He paraded as the chief until 1879 and died in 1904.

"The Sunday before Fat Tuesday at this grave, 25 women — our most secretive society today — all veiled and dressed in funeral garb, gather around this grave crying and screaming, then laughing and throwing down merry widow beads," Roberts told us. Then "Joe Cain's mistresses," all dressed in red, proceed downtown in one of the city's most cherished traditions.

We visited the Mobile Carnival Museum to get a closer look at the elaborate costumes worn by Mardi Gras royalty — the kings and queens of the 60 local organizations, 30 of which parade, that celebrate Mardi Gras every year. This 2 1/2- week private party event has become an economic engine year-round for Mobile, said Judy Gulledge, executive director of the Mobile Carnival Association, which operates the museum.

"Do you know any seamstresses?" Gulledge asked the visitors. "They can make a good living in Mobile."

Indeed, the bejeweled trains worn by the queens and kings average 18 feet long, weigh 35 pounds and take nine months to create by hand.

We went to a public party in Cathedral Square downtown on Dauphin Street , where Arts Alive! celebrated 10 years in 2012. This outdoor art and music festival is just one of several efforts launched to enliven downtown Mobile.

"Ten years ago there was a huge shift in the arts here," said Bob Burnett, executive director of the Mobile Arts Council.

The Mobile Museum of Art was transformed then into a multimillion-dollar showcase of European, American and African art as well as contemporary crafts, notably glass works.

The Center for Living Arts downtown also began 10 years ago, and the historic Saenger Theater was restored then, as well. The Center for Living Arts was formed to save the 1926 movie palace, where the Mobile Symphony performs as well as touring artists, including Aaron Neville and Bonnie Raitt. "It's now a showplace of Dixie," said Executive Director Robert Sain.

Just five years ago, LoDa ArtWalk began in the Lower Dauphin historic area, centered on Cathedral Square. On the second Friday of every month, downtown art galleries, studios and shops are open late, offering treats and drinks until 9 p.m.

A lot of this revitalization in downtown Mobile is credited to David Bronner, chief executive officer of the RSA, Retirement Systems of Alabama, the state's pension fund. Among his milestone achievements is the 2006 construction of the RSA Battle House Tower, now the tallest building on the Gulf Coast, along with the restoration of the adjacent Battle House Hotel, both downtown landmarks.

The Battle House Hotel originated here in 1852 but was one of those fire victims in 1905. In the 1970s it fell on hard times and was closed for 30 years.

More than 80 percent of its historic plasterwork had to be recreated, and it reopened in 2007 to become a beloved gathering place for Mobilians again.

The RSA is also behind the restoration of the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, now a Marriott resort and spa, which dates to 1847. The Grand Hotel is on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay — across from downtown — where nearby Fairhope is a charming, artsy town that is easily walkable.

On the first Friday of every month, Fairhope's galleries and shops stay open late and offer wine and cheese.

Nall, an acclaimed artist whose parents and all four grandparents were also born in Alabama, has a studio in Fairhope, as well as one in Saint- Paul de Vence, France. The onetime student of Salvador Dali told us, "You have to come to the Grand twice a year if you're anybody."

Nall, who has created china for Royal Limoges called "Bellingrath" that features camellias, Alabama's state flower, was chosen by RSA's Bronner to place artworks by Alabama artists in all eight properties owned by the RSA.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 September 2012 02:17

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