As we pored through census records, city directories, and old family letters, the Gaither and Bonner families, who had been servants in the Oakleigh household, began to come to life. But it also became clear that not all those who were employed in domestic service at Oakleigh during this period lived on the Oakleigh property, but elsewhere, at some commutable distance in an older part of town along the Mobile River, called Down-the-Bay.
Even more surprising was the information that began to emerge about the so-called “cook’s house.” As the little white building behind the big white house, it had become the subject of tour guide narratives based more on hearsay and supposition than verifiable fact—what is sometimes referred to as “docent lore.” Architects documenting Oakleigh for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in 1935 had prepared measured drawings of the structure, simply labeling it as an “old slave quarters.”
But as detailed investigation of the building proceeded, including careful physical examination by architectural historians, it became clear that the four-room structure did not date from the slave-holding past but most likely from approximately 1870. Further inquiry turned up a story that the structure had in fact been moved onto the property around 1916 by Oakleigh’s then-owners, the Cole family. So where had it been built originally, and for what purpose? The search for answers began all over again.
We hoped that early maps of the area might offer clues. Fortunately, there were municipal maps from the 1870s and 1890s, including the 1878 City Atlas of Mobile, Alabama as well as local real estate investors’ surveys. We found that after the Civil War near the Oakleigh property stood an Army post, with buildings labeled on at least four nineteenth-century maps as “barracks.” Local historian Peter J. Hamilton had written about these structures in his 1913 book Mobile of the Five Flags. Their locations were confirmed by several additional sources, including real estate ads from the 1870s in the Mobile Register and a family account written by Daisy Irwin Clisby, a previous owner of Oakleigh, who had sold the property in 1916. Finally, an 1865 article in the Mobile Tribune announced that the Federal government had selected the city “as a military post, and has authorized the erection of barracks for the troops which may be stationed here.”
It noted that a “piece of land consisting of four acres, located on New York Street, in the vicinity of Government street, has been leased from Mr. Franklin J. Kimball by the Government for one year, with the privilege of renewal at the expiration of that time for ten or more years, which will be used for this purpose. The barracks, consequently, will be about half a mile from the present camp, in a southwesterly direction.”
Once relocated to the Oakleigh property during the First World War period, the structure had been reconditioned in part for automobile storage and in part as a small apartment for the domestic staff (perhaps the origin of the designation “cook’s house”). Repurposed doors and other building materials used for the renovation had created a twentieth-century collage throughout the space. These were removed and the structure was restored to its nineteenth-century appearance under the guidance of Mobile restoration architect Benjamin Cummings. What had become a three room building, with three exterior doors, was converted back to its original four-room layout with four north-facing entrances. The bones of the structure offered guidance; beneath later twentieth-century plaster, the original studs and joists indicated the original placement of walls and floors. The resulting form matched the description of the “laundry buildings” constructed just a few yards south in 1866.
The completed restoration and our new knowledge of the Union troop encampment established near Oakleigh after the Civil War offers a new opportunity for introducing to visitors an obscure era in Mobile’s three hundred-year history, and it begs us to question our preformed ideas about nineteenth-century life in Mobile as well as the landscape surrounding Oakleigh. The hunt for the estate’s true history and the stories that accompany it is still on, and the story of Oakleigh and its surrounding landscape is ever evolving.
This feature was previously published in Issue 117, Summer 2015.
About the Author
Lauren van der Bijl is a graduate of the College of Charleston’s preservation program and currently serves as director of preservation and programming for the Historic Mobile Preservation Society.