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Mon October 12, 2009
"The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile," by John S. Sledge, Photography by Sheila Hagler
In Alabama, Greek Revival may have flourished best in Mobile, but when planters from the Black Belt came to town to meet with their cotton factors and to shop, they liked what they saw and sometimes had their country rural places built in this style.
By Don Noble
John Sledge, architectural historian with the Mobile Historic Development Commission, has again teamed up with the talented photographer Sheila Hagler to produce their third volume of photos and text, explaining and capturing the architectural marvels of Old Mobile.
Volume I, "Cities of Silence," was a pictorial guide to Mobile's historic cemeteries. In the second volume, "An Ornament to the City," Sledge and Hagler focused on the ironwork of Old Mobile found in cemetery fences, gates and porches.
In this attractive, oversized, book there are some 55 black and white photographs of extant Greek Revival buildings and a great many old photos and drawings of beautiful buildings which have either burned down or, in a fit of pragmatic bad taste, been torn down to make way for a motel or parking lot.
The period Sledge writes of was a fairly brief one in the South. From the time of the American Revolution on, architects had been heavily influenced by classic Roman designs. A strong interest in Greek design, possibly generated by British and American sympathy for the Greek War of Independence from the Turks in the 1820's, and by archeological discoveries at Mycenae and Ancient Troy, does not flourish here until the 19th century, and in the South only from about 1830 until the Civil War.
Architects, once their interest had been attracted, found much to admire and emulate. Beautiful buildings, public and private, large and small, schools, banks, churches, courthouses, homes, hotels, even some barns and privies, Sledge writes, arose with graceful columns and the symmetry and proportions of the Parthenon.
These buildings, like the ancient Greek temples themselves, were built to last, but most did not. In 1827 downtown Mobile was leveled by fire. 169 buildings were burned.
Mobilians rebuilt better than ever, with the Oakleigh House and the hospital among the most beautiful of the new buildings. As one might imagine, with buildings going up everywhere, the carpenters, masons and so on were thriving. Mobile during this period was a prosperous place.
But good times don't last forever. In 1832 Mobile was hit by a severe economic depression, real estate values plummeted, banks failed and the city was bankrupt. In August of 1837 a yellow fever epidemic struck and before it was over there were 600 dead. In October of 1837 fires broke out, 500 buildings burned and over 1,000 people were made homeless. Many Greek Revival buildings went up with the rest.
Recovery from that catastrophe was slow, with the city in financial ruin and the population diminished, but after a while, Sledge writes, there were good times again.
The story of the house is the history of the city and the times, and Sledge contextualizes the houses into the history of the city very well.
Nevertheless, for the cognoscenti, he does use the terms of architectural art in his descriptions. Of the Government Street Presbyterian Church he writes, "The full entablature features denticulation along the cornice, and the front and rear gables are pedimented. The original antefixae are no longer present." But fear not. There is an extensive glossary, although it did not contain either "jibbed windows" or "cave brackets," both of which I tried to look up.
In Alabama, Greek Revival may have flourished best in Mobile, but when planters from the Black Belt came to town to meet with their cotton factors and to shop, they liked what they saw and sometimes had their country rural places built in this style. That, combined with the Greek Revival mansion Tara, in the movie "Gone with the Wind," not the novel, created an association between the Old South, Southern belles with their hoop skirts, and the white columned mansion which has continued strongly, if erroneously, to this day.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."