In 1830, Mobile ranked a distant second in size to the port of New Orleans, some 150 miles further down the Gulf Coast near the mouth of the Mississippi. But it is a measure of Mobile’s coming of age that, soon thereafter, its mayor and aldermen determined to build a municipal hospital. Their action was doubtless also a testament to the ever-present concern about malaria and other illnesses (especially yellow fever) that were a scourge of semitropical latitudes. Today the Old City Hospital and its companion structure just to the east, the old U.S. Marine Hospital, are both striking architectural reminders of important public health initiatives in a westward-expanding Jacksonian America.
Minutes of Mobile’s Board of Alderman document the history of the property from the date of the City’s purchase of the site—then on Mobile’s western outskirts—to the completion the building three years later. In 1833, the Board of Aldermen appointed a three-person committee to review architectural plans and building specifications for the hospital. The committee awarded $75.00 to “Captain” William K. George for the drawings, though he is absent from further records. Over the next three years, John K. Collins supervised the actual construction work. A local contractor and builder, Collins would also oversee the construction of the Mobile County Jail and Government Street Hotel.
Rising two stories above a raised basement, the hospital originally measured 183 feet from end to end—nearly the length of a city block. The design is a three-part composition consisting of an advanced five-bay center pavilion with lateral wings of equal length. Complementing a monumental pedimented portico fronting the main block, colonnaded galleries extend to either side. The result is a rhythmic sequence of stuccoed brick pillars of a rudimentary Tuscan order, probably taken from a contemporary carpenter’s manual. In 1907, the hospital was lengthened nearly twenty feet at each end from the solid brick walls, which, until then, terminated the colonnades. Inside the hospital, a cruciform corridor arrangement bisected the main block from front to back while serving each of the long wards occupying the wings. Over time, multiple wings were added at the rear to serve an ever-growing community.
Though the hospital is said to be the first building in the city proper to employ a monumental neoclassical portico, there was a local precedent at the nearby Jesuit-run college in the suburb of Spring Hill. Built in 1830–1831, purportedly to designs by Father Claude Beroujon, Spring Hill College’s impressive main building displayed a portico similar enough in appearance to that of the hospital—complete with an elliptical lunette piercing the pediment—to suggest its influence on the Mobile structure.
From 1853 to 1959, the City Hospital was staffed and administered by Catholic sisters from the nearby Convent of Mercy. The hospital was refurbished as office space in the 1970s, an adaptation that included removal of the later rear wings. Today, the building continues to serves the City of Mobile. Next door is the old U.S. Marine Hospital, now owned by the Mobile County Health Department. As the city of Mobile grew around them, the buildings appear visually stranded in the twenty-first century, amid a nondescript urban landscape of asphalt parking lots and temporary metal buildings.
Gamble, Robert. The Alabama Catalog - Historic American Buildings Survey: A Guide to the Early Architecture of the State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.
Gould, Elizabeth Barrett. From Fort to Port: An Architectural History of Mobile, Alabama: 1711–1918.Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Sledge, John S. The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.