What is the history of the little red cottage on Old Shell Road at the foot of Spring Hill? A sign painted on the front says “Chinaberry.”
When Anne Randolph Crichton purchased the home on Old Shell Road that she later dubbed “Chinaberry,” it was already around 90 years old. The house once featured elaborate gardens and a private chapel, but today it languishes on the real estate market.
The small red house at 3703 Old Shell Road was reportedly built by George Pfau in 1862. Where else but in Mobile would a German immigrant build a French Creole cottage? The house consisted of four rooms and contained no interior hallway — a common feature of Creole cottages in the early 19th century. The kitchen was in a detached structure.
In December of 1896, the Mobile Register reported that Mr. Pfau’s “body was found cold in death, lying in the doorway of his house … having died, it is supposed, from an attack of asthma, to which he was subject. He was 76 years of age and had been a resident of Mobile for the past 45 years.”
Little is known about the next 50 years of the home’s history, but sometime in the early 1950s, the house was purchased by Miss Anne Randolph Crichton who dubbed it “Chinaberry.”
The Crichton Connection
Anne Crichton was one of the five children of Hugh Crichton, a North Carolina transplant who arrived in Mobile in 1891 to serve as vice president of the short-lived Mobile, Wesson & Mississippi Railroad.
In 1895, Crichton went into partnership with Nicholas Felis and ran a cigar and tobacco shop on North Royal Street. He later dabbled in real estate in an unincorporated section west of Mobile known as Napoleonville. In an effort to improve property values, he established a post office there which was named in his honor. The surrounding area was renamed Crichton, although no member of the family ever resided there. Anne, who was born in 1898, had a career in the U.S. Navy and worked in Washington, D.C. Her 1938 scrapbook, housed in the archives of Tulane University, reveals her love of travel with mementos from an elaborate trip to France, Germany and Denmark. After retiring from the Navy, she moved in with two of her sisters. Their unusually designed house still stands at 1651 Dauphin Street.
A Home and a Hobby
“Chinaberry” became Anne Crichton’s primary home and hobby. She planted elaborate gardens behind the house and built a small private chapel with salvaged antique bricks. Her interest in preservation led to decades of volunteering at the Oakleigh museum house where she shared her love of local history.
As she aged, Anne began to spend more time on Dauphin Street with Susan Crichton, her last surviving sibling. Susan died in February of 1990, and Anne died just eight months later at the age of 92.
“Chinaberry” has been vacant and on the real estate market for some time now. It can only be hoped that the new owner will see the potential in this historic property which Anne Crichton obviously did.