When thinking about historic Mobile homes, antebellum mansions likely come to mind. Those multi-story Greek Revival structures with massive columns, elaborate friezes and cast-iron balconies.
There’s another type of mid-19th century home that is important to the history of the Port City, the Creole cottage, which today is appreciated for its minimal stylistic features and functionality.
One of Mobile’s earliest examples of Creole architecture is the Chinaberry Cottage completed in 1862. The main structure and two outbuildings, long derelict, have been renovated to retain their original character while being adapted for today’s commercial use. Just under 800 square feet were added to the original home.
Dakinstreet Architects in Mobile was the architecture firm of record and Burton Property Group was the developer. McNair Historic Preservation served as the lead historic preservation consulting firm and secured federal and state Historic Tax Credits, assisted with design and materials, and monitored historic easement compliance.
Retaining the original character of a building while adapting it for a new function can be challenging, as project architect Steve Stone of Dakinstreet Architects discovered.
“When committing to retention of the historic character, you need to balance it with modern codes, accessibility, and the owner’s desires,” Stone explains. “There was also a significant amount of irreparable damage to the rear of the home, so that had to be recreated using photos and a lot of back-and-forth design.”
Stone identifies two Creole-style features that dominate the original home – the full front porch, pulled relatively close to the street despite having a deep lot, and the large gabled roof turned toward the street instead of 90 degrees to it.
“A handful of details throughout the building including dual interior fireplaces, lattice brickwork crawl space vents, and abundant wood shutters all pitch in to the overall feel,” Stone adds.
One of the outbuildings was originally a kitchen, which was common in those days to keep separate from the main house. The other outbuilding is commonly referred to as the chapel.
“But only because of a stained-glass window that was inserted into the building from a local church that was demolished,” notes Stephen McNair of McNair Historic Preservation. “In reality, it was a garden shed for tools and gardening.”
The main house is currently occupied as office space by an engineering firm. The kitchen will also be a single office. The chapel will remain a storage building.
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, the Chinaberry Cottage includes characteristics common to the vernacular “Creole cottage” type of house that was common along the Gulf Coast, with most of structures found in southern Louisiana eastward to Mobile. A 1½‐story building with a basic four-room plan, gabled roof and no central hallway. A style influenced by both French and Spanish construction methods and the local climate.
Though hard to imagine now in their renovated state, the cottage and its two outbuildings were so neglected that vines were taking over and the rear addition of the main house was collapsing. Yet the extensive work did not detract from the original character of the structures, which was necessary to keep intact to be eligible for tax incentives.
“In order for the project to remain within compliance with the historic easement and also meet the standards of the Department of the Interior to receive Historic Tax Credits,” says McNair, “all of the character defining features of the structures and grounds were retained with intentional detail.”
*Article Written by Jessica Armstrong and Images Courtesy of Dakinstreet Architects