For the Love of Midtown
An ode to a spirited, historic neighborhood and the heart of our city as it rallies post-storm
In 1945, Trinity Episcopal moved from its location at St. Anthony and Jackson to its current site on Dauphin. When the sanctuary and parish hall were struck recently, the church received a generous outpouring of support from the community, according to the new priest, Father Bailey Norman, drawing Midtown and the congregation together.
Photo by Todd Douglas
On Christmas Day 2012, an EF-2 tornado gashed Midtown Mobile’s core, badly damaging many of its iconic landmarks, such as Murphy High School, Trinity Episcopal Church and the lovely, distinctive streetscapes of Silverwood and Carlen. Only five days prior, a twister had whipped through the Dauphin and Sage Avenue area. Both were traumatic and memorable events in Midtown’s theretofore mostly sunny history. But any fears that the violent storm might dampen the special spirit of the Midtown community were misplaced. By the grace of God, no lives were lost in the tornado, and the cleanup began before it had even stopped raining. Midtown’s scars will take time to heal since some beloved buildings may be irrevocably altered or even lost, but the storm only confirmed what most Mobilians already knew – Midtown is special. So even as roofs are patched and trees trimmed, and spring’s greenery starts to pop along the tornado’s wrecked path, it seems appropriate to take a few moments to spotlight the place we know and love.
LEFT Stately, age-old oak boughs form a canopy along Bienville Avenue. Although their massive roots crumble and contort the sidewalks in an otherwise picturesque scene, their shade is a welcome respite from the merciless Lower Alabama sun, providing ample, cool pathways for young mothers to stroll their babies most months of the year. Nearby streets, like Fulton, host joggers on the Azalea Trail. RIGHT The Japonica Avenue sign, with its cherished metal cutout of a lady with a lantern, is one of many memorable markers around Midtown. The street was one of the later ones built in the district, platted after 1939.
THE LAY OF MIDTOWN
Even conceived-under-the-azalea-bush Old Mobilians disagree on exactly where Midtown begins and ends. Some consider Ann Street the eastern boundary, some think it is Lafayette, while others name Catherine, Houston, Fulton or Florida. Interestingly, Florida Street also nets votes as a western boundary, as does Sage Avenue, Montlimar Drive and I-65.
In 2001, when Midtown was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, the book-length nomination set boundaries at Houston Street on the east, Felder Place on the west, Springhill Avenue on the north and Old Government Street on the south. Its southeast corner is anchored by the Loop with its cannon and Memorial Park, while Murphy High School holds the center.
Despite the fuzziness regarding its exact parameters, what is clear is that it’s livable, middle-class and charming; Fairhope with better architecture; Oakleigh with bungalows and more palms and azaleas but no fussiness; great for kids; easy and relaxed.
Standout streets include Florence Place, with stucco entrance gates on each end and numerous Mission Revival-style houses in between; Bienville Avenue, with its soothing oak canopy; and Dauphin Street, with its magnificent mansions on big shaded lots. Of the nearly 1,500 buildings in this district, more than 85 percent are contributing structures – that is, they are 50-plus years of age and retain a significant degree of their architectural integrity. Trinity Episcopal Church, the Carlen House and Termite Hall are among its finest landmarks.
A pleasing variety of simple houses join antebellum cottages and Queen Anne mansions – lots of bungalows, especially along Bienville and Demouy; revival styles like the Neo-classical, English Cottage, Mission, Dutch Colonial and Tudor; and Minimal Traditional residences built during the ’40s.
ABOVE An idyllic little ice cream shop at the corner of Old Shell and Florida, Cammie’s Old Dutch, is known for its homemade treats dished up by local teens. Where else but Mobile does the local creamery dip out bargain scoops whenever a hurricane threatens a power outage? In another of its time-honored traditions, the family hangout is often the celebratory place of choice after youth ballgames, dance recitals and even etiquette classes. Top right photo by Matthew Wood.
To drive through Midtown today is to get an education in mid-19th- to early-20th-century American domestic architecture. Better yet is to get out of the car and walk these polite and sylvan streets. Either way, one quickly grasps that in addition to an interesting past, Midtown has a vibrant present loaded with all the assets that make for the good life.
For one thing, Midtown harbors many fine restaurants, including the new Little House Midtown, at 2351 Airport Blvd.; MiMo’s Neighborhood Eats and Drinks, at 2101 Airport Blvd.; Ruth’s Chris, at 2058 Airport Blvd.; Regina’s Kitchen, at 2056 Government St.; Yen Restaurant, at 763 Holcombe Ave.; the Dew Drop Inn, at 1808 Old Shell Road; Queen G’s Café, at 2518 Old Shell Road; Ashland Midtown Pub, at 2453 Old Shell Road; Butch Cassidy’s, at 60 N. Florida St.; and the Whistle Stop Bar and Grill, at 110 S. Florida St. The latter establishment is especially noted for its terrific fried chicken on Thursdays and incredible Saturday morning breakfasts. For a sweet treat, there’s Cammie’s Old Dutch Ice Cream at 2511 Old Shell Road, where a variety of delectable flavors is served up by local high schoolers.
Good eats aside, Midtown residents are quick to cite the many traditions that make the neighborhood so endearing. These include painting the Loop cannon after the Murphy vs. McGill football game, attending the Mardi Gras parade at Ashland Place United Methodist Church Preschool, visiting the enormous pumpkin patch at Dauphin and Catherine every fall, and taking in popular street parties on North Monterey, North Reed and Westwood every year. No tornado would ever succeed in sweeping away any of these beloved traditions for long.
Midtown truly is Mobile at its essence, livable, appealing and relaxed.
ABOVE Heirs of early Mobilian Michael Carlen sold land for Murphy High School in 1923, and architect George Rogers’ design became a standout local example of Mission Revival style, with smooth stuccoed wall surfaces and graceful curving parapets. It has remained a vital part of Midtown since its completion in 1926. The school received major storm impact, forcing students to spend a semester at Clark-Shaw. Recovery calls for repair of original structures and electrical and plumbing upgrades. Photo by Todd Douglas
LEFT Few sounds are more familiar in Midtown than the chug and clack of trains sputtering along the railroad tracks. RIGHT Memorial Park at the Loop, with its iconic cannon, is often filled with students from Murphy High School or McGill-Toolen anxious to paint the landmark.
LEFT Firefighter Warren Stanley, of the quaint local Fire Station 12 at Ashland Place, is suited up and ready to protect his fellow neighbors. RIGHT The dining scene in Midtown is indicative of the quaint, small-town feel of the entire neighborhood. Patrons often frequent the same establishments with religious predictability. Booths at the Dew Drop Inn, the famous hot dog hot spot, are dotted with brass name plaques marking patrons’ longtime booths. Photo by Matthew Wood
ABOVE Margaret Greene erected a one-and-a-half-story cottage on the north side of modern-day Midtown in 1851. Her little house served as a stop for carriages making the long journey out to Spring Hill. Over the next 50 years, it was enlarged, eventually becoming a Victorian mansion. Many years beyond this transformation, the incomparable raconteur Eugene Walter fell through its porch. He promptly dubbed the place “Termite Hall.” Angela Trigg, great-great-granddaughter of early Midtowner Regina DeMouy, who once occupied the home, has lovingly restored the Old Shell Road place. Photo by Jeff and Meggan Haller.
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”