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Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies
In an antebellum South notoriously indifferent to publication education, Barton Academy represented a striking anomaly. That the large, purpose-built public school was built in 1830s Mobile testifies to the unusual vision and vigor of a handful of notable civic leaders, including New England-born businessman Henry Hitchcock, a chief contributor to both Barton Academy and the Government Street Presbyterian Church, a contemporary institution nearby. The academy was named for State Representative Willoughby Barton, who had sponsored the legislative act creating a Board of School Commissioners for Mobile County.
The City of Mobile, located thirty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, at the head of Mobile Bay and at the mouth of an extensive river system that snaked into the interior, was a bustling port community at the time of the school’s construction in 1836. The city had been founded more than a century before as a minor colonial outpost—at first French, then British, then Spanish. During the 1830s, the city’s mixed Gallic-Hispanic-Anglo population included a small but influential merchant and professional class with strong commercial and social ties to the Northeast, in particular New York City. The city itself experienced a building boom, brought about by its role as entrepôt linking the east coast and Europe with the newly opened cotton lands of Alabama and Mississippi.
The architects of Barton Academy, James Gallier and brothers Charles and James Dakin, were all briefly professionally associated with three leading Manhattan proponents of the Greek Revival style: Ithiel Town, A.J. Davis, and Minard Lafever. The style was then at its peak in New York and throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Lured by the building prospects of a flourishing cotton economy, all three architects departed for the Deep South in the mid-1830s. Once on the Gulf Coast, Gallier and the Dakins formed a loose, though short-lived, partnership and quickly established themselves as preeminent in their profession in both New Orleans and Mobile. Although the records are not entirely clear, Gallier and Charles Dakin seem to have spearheaded the Barton Academy project.
In the architects’ design for the three-story structure, heavily pilastered advanced end bays bracket intervening blocks that, in turn, flank a six-bay central pavilion. The sweeping facade forms a sequence of well-articulated, advancing and receding planes. Over a ground floor that functions as a visual base for the composition, a raised Ionic portico rises through a surrounding canopy of live oaks. Crowning the building is a rounded dome, curiously underscaled for the column-encircled drum on which it rests. A tall, lanky lantern sits atop the swelling dome.
As with most public ventures, a building committee oversaw construction, although shaky funding obtained through municipal bonds, private contributions, and a lottery delayed completion for three years. Moreover, the dream of a few visionaries found little support amidst a society largely oblivious, if not actually opposed, to the virtues of a free public school system akin to those developing outside the South. Instead, school commissioners were forced to rent the building piecemeal to various private schools and academies. Not until 1852, after defeat of a movement to sell the building and reorganization of the school commission, would Barton Academy finally become Alabama’s first public school.
Sometime before 1900, setback wings were added to either side. These respected the exterior scale and character of the core structure, as did a massive addition across the back that was completed by 1915. The original interior of the building—presumably adhering to an axial plan similar to the present layout—was not similarly respected: it was gutted so that today virtually no trace of the early-nineteenth-century interior fabric remains. Meanwhile, with the 1904 construction of the Yerby School to the north behind the main building, the complex of school structures expanded to occupy a full city block.
In the mid-1930s, the Historic American Buildings Survey documented the antebellum portion of Barton Academy with photographs as well as measured drawings of the exterior and selected architectural details. These include an ornate, classically detailed cast-iron fence of an undetermined date that encloses the front and sides of the school property. The fence, like so much of Mobile’s nineteenth-century iron work, is believed to have been shipped from the Northeast.
In 1969, after a century of use as a school, Barton Academy became the headquarters for the Mobile County Board of Education. At that time, the building’s exterior was restored by local architects Nicholas Holmes Jr. and Dillon March. Since 2007, when the Board relocated to West Mobile, the building has stood vacant, although it remains Board of Education property. Current plans call for its repurposing as a school for advanced international studies within the county system. Toward this end, the Board earmarked $3.5 million of its $100 million budget for much-needed repair. The private, nonprofit Barton Hall Foundation was created in 2011 to advocate on the landmark’s behalf and facilitate its adaptive use. In 2016, the Barton Academy Foundation was awarded a $1.25 million challenge grant from the Ben May Charitable Trust to renovate the building as the Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies.
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.
Scully, Arthur, Jr. James Dakin, Architect: His Career in New York and the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.
Sledge, John. The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.
Watson, Bama Wathan. History of Barton Academy.Mobile: Haunted Bookshop, 1971.
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