From the mouth of Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama’s boundaries reach inland for more than 300 miles to the border with its northern neighbor, Tennessee—a distance nearly as far as from New York to Ottawa. From a breadth of 140 miles at the extreme top of the state, its lateral boundaries taper gradually outward to some 200 miles, and then constrict again as they continue southward, bulging against the states of Mississippi on the west and Georgia on the east, where the winding Chattahoochee River forms the bottom third of the dividing line. Within the 54,000 square miles encompassed by these boundaries, the landscape ranges from the verdant Appalachian ridges of the northeast, spilling out of Tennessee and Georgia, to moss-hung swamps and winding bayous in the far southwest, where magnificent beaches of fine white sand look out over the Gulf toward Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, a few hundred miles south. Between lie coastal pinelands and rolling piedmont hills, upland plateaus and fertile limestone-underlain valleys, and—extending irregularly across the south central part of the state—the prairie-like Black Belt, named for its rich, deep, dark soil.
Large tracts of arable land especially congenial to growing cotton, combined with vast stands of marketable timber and substantial deposits of coal and iron, successively spurred Alabama’s economic development from the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. A distinct advantage were its navigable waterways; there are four major river networks. The largest, the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa system, flows southwestward from the foothills of the Appalachians, meandering through the piedmont, the Black Belt, and the coastal plain toward Mobile Bay. On the other side of the state, the Tombigbee-Black Warrior system drains much of western Alabama, slicing irregularly through the widest part of the Black Belt. The two systems converge some fifty miles above Mobile Bay to form the Mobile River, which then descends through a watery semi-wilderness, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, before emptying into the bay itself. Along the eastern edge of the state, the Chattahoochee finds its own way to the Gulf through the Florida Panhandle and Apalachicola Bay. Finally, there is the Tennessee River. Isolated from the lower part of Alabama by the broken hill country that straddles the north-central part of the state, the river emerges out of the Appalachians to loop down into Alabama through a broad rich valley before swinging upward again into Tennessee and Kentucky, eventually to join the Ohio-Mississippi system.
In time, the railroad would edge out Alabama’s rivers as vital arteries of transportation and commerce. But through the first half of the nineteenth century, it was reasonably good river access, along with fertile soil, that determined the pattern of inland settlement and the location of Alabama’s earliest major inland towns. Long before Anglo-Americans pushed into the interior, a Native American culture with roots thousands of years old flourished in this region. Russell Cave, now a unit of the National Park system in the mountainous far northeastern corner of the state, shows evidence of human occupancy at least as far back as 10,000 BCE. In the 1540s, during their murderous trek across the Southeast, Hernando De Soto and his conquistadores encountered thriving Indian communities along the Coosa and Alabama rivers. Yet even by that time, the impressive complex of prehistoric earthen mounds now preserved at Moundville State Park, on the Black Warrior River below Tuscaloosa, had already been abandoned. Today it survives as one of the largest mound complexes in eastern America, and comprises the oldest vestige of human-made “architecture” on the Alabama landscape.
European settlement of what is now Alabama had actually started over a century earlier when, in 1702, the French established Fort Louis de la Louisiane on the Mobile River. Nine years later, the fort and surrounding community were relocated downstream to another site at the head of Mobile Bay, marking the birth of the present city of Mobile. Successively French, then British, and then Spanish during the long tug of war between European colonial powers, Mobile still remained a straggling bayside military outpost and Indian trading center—its waterfront dominated by the stout brick Fort Conde built ninety years before by the French—when American forces seized it in 1813. But the port community was poised for a surge of commercial prosperity in the decades to come, as upriver cotton lands came increasingly into cultivation through an expanding population of enslaved people. With a population of 30,000 by the eve of the Civil War, including a strong infusion of émigré Yankee merchants, Mobile would remain by far Alabama’s largest city until overtaken in the early 1900s by industrial Birmingham. Of colonial-period structures around Mobile Bay, however, nothing remains aside from a reconstructed portion of Fort Conde. Yet the imprint of the colonial era would linger in the local vernacular architecture—in the fancifully named “Creole cottage,” as well as a proclivity for sweeping roofs and spreading verandas distinctly Caribbean in flavor. This inclination would persist well into the nineteenth century, and now and then still finds self-conscious expression in modern reprises.
With a growing number of American settlers coming from the states to the east and north—most notably Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Tennessee—Alabama entered the union on December 14, 1819. As elsewhere on the American frontier, the log dwelling prevailed: whether a dirt-floored cabin or the solid, two-story log house of a well-heeled planter. The middle-of-the-road favorite among all classes was the open-hall log dogtrot (called a double log house at the time), with its cooling central breezeway well adapted to Alabama’s adapted to Alabama’s long, sultry summers.
In their better frame and brick domestic buildings (only one, now-ruinous stone house has been documented), early Alabamians fell back on traditional house types familiar to them from the Atlantic states, usually with a frosting of late Federal detail. There was the ubiquitous I-house and its distinct southern variant, the extended I-house. Popularly known as the “plantation plain” house, the latter is identified by its long shed-roofed front porch (sometimes with a “stranger’s room” or “parson’s chamber” at one end) and corresponding shed-like extension across the rear. There was also the Carolina coastal cottage, with its deep veranda undercutting the front slope of its high roof in a manner recalling Mobile’s “Creole” cottages. Settlers from eastern Virginia, primarily planters in the Tennessee Valley and the western Black Belt, occasionally replicated the story-and-a-half, dormered and end-chimneyed houses they had known back home—the so-called Tidewater type cottage. Unlike Mobile’s colonial-period architecture, these distinct vernacular strains, often standing in rural isolation, have yet to be fully appreciated as important links to an older Atlantic coast culture. Little understood even by preservationists, most of the few remaining examples are now critically endangered.
In a handful of public buildings and notable private residences like Huntsville’s Poplar Grove (1814), academic architecture also appeared in Alabama during these earliest decades. The most ambitious of these was the second statehouse (1827–1831) in the then-seat of government, Tuscaloosa. An accomplished neo-Palladian structure, it was designed by the English-born William Nichols, who also built the handsome Rotunda on the nearby University of Alabama campus.
Until the 1850s, neoclassicism remained the dominant vocabulary for structures of any pretension, almost invariably book-derived by local builders from the publications of Owen Biddle, Asher Benjamin, Minard Lafever, Chester Hills, and others. In town and country, it expressed itself in dwellings, courthouses, fraternal halls, diminutive medical offices, rural meetinghouses, and places of worship. Of course it would also influence the legendary architecture of the plantation houses, though neither as widespread nor typically as grand as later myth would suggest. A few engaging examples, such as Belle Mina, Thorn Hill, Rosemount, and Saunders Hall may still be seen here and there across rural Alabama and in old planter communities such as Greensboro, Eutaw, Lowndesboro, Camden, and Tuskegee.
Toward the end of the antebellum period, influenced by the swelling national tide of architectural eclecticism, new fashions gained ascendency. Purveyed in works like those of Samuel Sloan and Calvert Vaux, the Italianate mode enjoyed particular favor. Strict neoclassicism occasionally morphed into an interesting amalgam that preserved columnar forms and monumental porticoes, but discarded orthodox classical entablatures and detailing in favor of wide bracketed eaves, octagonal pillars, and, now and again, a studied asymmetry.
Fueled by a worldwide boom in the cotton market, Alabama flourished during the 1850s. Most of the state’s production went to markets and mills in the Northeast and Europe via water or incipient railways. But local cotton-related industry—gin manufacturing and basic cloth production—made headway as well. The water-powered Bell Factory near Huntsville had begun operation before 1820. Other mills followed, notably the impressive complex developed by New England-born industrialist Daniel Pratt at Prattville near Montgomery. The gigantic stone Tallassee mill at the falls of the Tallapoosa River was probably the largest structure in the state when completed in 1855, though now stands as a gutted, roofless ruin. These pioneer initiatives presaged the full flowering of Alabama’s textile industry a few decades later, between 1880 and 1920.
Railroad construction also picked up momentum in the decade before the Civil War. Actually, as early as 1834, the fifty-mile-long Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur line had been completed to ship cotton around the treacherous Muscle Shoals of the Tennessee River. In the 1850s this line was absorbed into the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which linked the southern Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River. At the same time, the Mobile and Ohio Railroad connected Alabama’s port city to the upper Midwest. And in 1854, Montgomery, the state capital since 1846, was finally joined by rail with Atlanta. During this period other lines began pushing slowly west across the Black Belt, southwest toward Mobile, and toward the northern hill country.
Unsurprisingly then, the late antebellum period in Alabama was one of unprecedented architectural activity, especially in areas and communities most closely tied to the cotton economy. A few particularly ambitious individuals among Alabama’s narrow white elite (wealthy planters and cotton merchants for the most part) engaged the services of national figures like Samuel Sloan and Richard Upjohn to design their opulent mansions.
Still, in 1860 log dwellings remained the habitation for a majority of rural white Alabamians: middle-class “yeoman” farmers for the most part, with few, if any, slaves. And for the more than forty percent of Alabamians—out of a total population of just under a million—who were enslaved African Americans, living conditions were even more primitive. Makeshift quarters of log or rough frame construction sufficed in most instances, especially on farms and plantations, with now and then modest brick quarters for those who worked as servants in the “big house.” Of countless such rude dwellings that once dotted the plantation landscape, scarcely a trace remains today.
The Civil War years largely spared Alabama in terms of physical destruction, except for the repeatedly ravaged Tennessee Valley and, at the very end of the war, a sweeping Union campaign across the central part of the state that targeted facilities deemed still useful to the unraveling Confederate war effort. Among the raid’s casualties were the handsome buildings of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, most of the state’s few iron furnaces, and the large Confederate armaments facility at Selma, along with much of that town’s business district.
The abolition of slavery transformed the plantation system, consigning it instead to a century-long twilight of sharecropping and tenancy. At the same time, thanks to generous infusions of outside capital, the accelerated expansion of the railroads between 1870 and 1910 drew hitherto isolated regions of the state into economic play. The Black Belt and the Tennessee Valley were at last linked in 1872 by the north-south line of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, spawning, among other places, the German immigrant community of Cullman on the wooded highland plateau north of Birmingham. In fact, the railroad’s part in the development of Alabama during this period can scarcely be overestimated as rural whistle-stops, small towns, and growing cities were knit together by a web of steel tracks. Antebellum river towns like Claiborne on the Alabama and Gainesville on the Tombigbee faded; new communities sprang up beside the tracks, while older ones flourished or declined depending on their proximity to the railroad. The railway also opened up vast timber and agricultural lands near the Florida line, nourishing the growth of places like Brewton, Atmore, and Andalusia, and Baldwin County truck-farming communities like Foley and the Swedish settlement of Silver Hill. Most importantly, the railroad opened up the hill-girt mineral regions of northern Alabama.
Birmingham, founded in 1871 and soon dubbing itself “the Pittsburgh of the South,” was the foremost among several north Alabama industrial boomtowns that also included nearby Bessemer as well as Anniston, Sheffield, Bridgeport, Gadsden, and Fort Payne. Anniston in particular, guided by the enlightened views of the émigré Noble family, created around its furnaces and mills a thoughtfully planned streetscape incorporating neat workers’ housing, handsome stores, and well-built stone churches, the elegant Anniston Inn, and, slightly removed from the rest, the patrician residences of the Nobles and other town leaders.
Birmingham’s exponential growth from a population of 38,000 in 1900 to over a quarter of a million in 1930 brought to Alabama its first true skyscrapers, beginning with the 1901 Woodward Building, along with entire neighborhoods of comfortable Craftsman-style bungalows, primarily for a growing white middle class. At the same time, structures like the impressive seven-story headquarters building designed by Tuskegee University architect and MIT graduate Robert R. Taylor for the African American Masonic fraternity of Alabama, heralded the emergence in the city and state of a black business and professional class.
From their Tudor-style mansions on the lofty brow of Red Mountain, Birmingham’s industrial moguls of the 1920s could survey the bustling city. Yet this prosperity all too often came with notorious living conditions for those—both black and white—who toiled on the bottommost rung of the industrial ladder at Birmingham’s steel mills and foundries, or in the nearby coal fields.
In a state historically indifferent to mass education, the early twentieth century saw an encouraging burst of public, albeit segregated and scarcely equal, school construction, enlisting skilled architects like the Birmingham firm Warren, Knight and Davis, Frank Lockwood of Montgomery, and George B. Rogers of Mobile. At the same time, the post–Civil War northern philanthropy that helped establish Tuskegee Institute, Talladega College, and other higher learning opportunities for black Alabamians, was extended to primary education, especially in rural districts, through the largesse of Sears Roebuck magnate Julius Rosenwald. In plain but thoughtfully designed frame school buildings, thousands of rural African American children and white youth in the Appalachian uplands had a chance to receive an education for the first time.
Perhaps most indicative of such early-twentieth-century social idealism were the federally initiated projects born of the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s: schools and post offices, park pavilions and lodges, housing projects, rural redevelopment schemes such as Skyline Farms and Gee’s Bend, and most famously, the Tennessee Valley Authority. Involving seven states, this grandly conceived flood-control, electrification, navigation, and recreational initiative eventually included three large dams in Alabama. It positioned the topmost part of the state to emerge, after World War II and with the coming to Huntsville of the NASA-related space industry, as the state’s strongest economic region. By the early twenty-first century, Huntsville had been transformed from a languid, cotton-focused county seat of 13,000 in 1950 to a bustling high-tech city and cultural melting-pot of over 200,000 people. Remarkably, though not without struggle and serious losses, Huntsville has managed to preserve a varied urban ensemble of landmark residences, churches, schools, and commercial structures spanning 200 years of Alabama’s architectural history.
During the same period, faced with closing steel mills and white flight to burgeoning suburbs, Birmingham grappled with the problem of adapting to a post-industrial existence. The struggle persists in the early twenty-first century, though mitigated by the presence of the vast University of Alabama Medical Center (the city’s largest employer) with its I.M. Pei-designed Kirklin Clinic (1992), as well as encouraging signs of revitalization in the city’s fine downtown core. Elsewhere in Alabama, construction of three major automobile manufacturing facilities (Mercedes Benz in Tuscaloosa, and ThyssenKrupp and US Airbus in the Mobile area) seemed to signal a new era of industrial development. At Mercedes, the visitor center proclaims in its sleek, gently undulating lines an architectural aesthetic at once international and site sensitive.
Today Alabama’s built environment is one of cheek-by-jowl contrasts: new office parks and state-of-the-art industrial plants, trendy shopping centers, and sophisticated planned residential communities may lie half an hour’s drive from forlorn scenes of rural and urban poverty. Too often towns struggle with gradual economic decline as they find their way out of an agrarian, racially divided past. Meanwhile, laissez-faire economic development has left its own pell-mell detritus in the dead and dying malls of the 1960s and 1970s, and in highway landscapes sometimes of dystopian ugliness.
Merging past and present in a vibrant, cohesive, and meaningful built environment remains a major challenge hampered by a preservation movement that has been somewhat belated and weaker than in other southern states. As a distinctive Deep South urban setting, Mobile once ranked only behind Charleston, New Orleans, and Savannah. The Historic American Buildings Survey of the 1930s documented scores of the city’s old houses fronted by lacy cast-iron verandas beneath arching live oaks. But a wartime boom in shipbuilding and commerce (much of the cast iron actually went for armaments), plus steady postwar attrition followed by the “blight” removal of a heavy-handed urban renewal program, had, by the 1980s, obliterated three-quarters of Mobile’s quite remarkable architectural legacy. Still, surprising pockets of the old urban texture managed to survive, and Mobilians have developed an unprecedented public awareness of the built environment as part of their community’s distinctive personality. This same sense of awareness and stewardship, cutting across lines of class and race, has now been gradually accepted, if at times skeptically, by many other Alabama communities, and has persisted in the face of fiscal austerity and competing urban challenges. This suggests that a more enlightened public may in the future manage the built landscape more thoughtfully than it did in the past.
Bowsher, Alice Meriwether. Alabama Architecture: Looking at Building and Place. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Bowsher, Alice Meriwether. Community in Alabama: Architecture for Living Together. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.
Bridges, Edwin C. Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016.
Cooper, Chip, Robert Gamble, and Harry Knopke. Silent in the Land. Tuscaloosa, AL: CKM Press, 1993.
Fazio, Michael W. Landscape of Transformations: Architecture and Birmingham, Alabama. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010.
Gamble, Robert. The Alabama Catalog – Historic America Building Survey: A Guide to the Early Architecture of the State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.
Gamble, Robert. Historic Architecture in Alabama: A Guide to Styles and Types, 1810–1930. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990; reprinted 2001.
Gould, Elizabeth Barrett. From Fort to Port: An Architectural History of Mobile, 1711–1918. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Hamilton, Virginia Van der Veer. Alabama: A Bicentennial History. New York: Norton, 1977.
Lane, Mills. Architecture of the Old South: Alabama and Mississippi. Savannah, GA: The Beehive Press, 1989.
Rogers, William Warren, Robert David Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins, and Wayne Flynt. Alabama: The History of a Deep South State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
Sledge, John S. The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.
Work Projects Administration. Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South. American Guide Series. New York: Hastings House, 1941. Rev. ed. 1975.
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