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January 25, 2000

Mobile: Then and Now

Then Now
(Click on a photo to see a larger version)

by Tom McGehee

When Mobile entered the twentieth century, its Bienville Square was the center of a growing array of club houses and meeting halls for the city’s numerous social, fraternal and masonic organizations then flourishing.

The trend had begun in 1877 with the construction of the elegant three story Athelstan Club opposite the south east corner of the square. In 1896 The Fidelia Club was set up on the upper floors of the new Spira and Pincus Building on the south west corner. In 1901 the Masonic Temple Hall towered above the east side offering meeting space for a variety of masonic organizations.

This is a view of the newly completed Pythian Castle Hall of 1905 which stood on the north side of the square on St. Francis Street. Four lodges of the Knights of Pythias had joined to expand two existing buildings into the one shown here. They had previously met in less luxurious quarters on Dauphin Street on the other side of the square.

Like other clubs of the day, the first floor was reserved for leased commercial space. The large bay windows with plate glass are quite visible here. Between them doors lead to the grand stairway rising to the Knights quarters.

On the second floor was a reception room, library, ladies’ parlor and a men’s “Shaving Parlor.” The third story held a meeting hall for the lodges, a billiard room, dining room, kitchen and pantries. The whole was fronted with a deep gallery overlooking Bienville Square and the Mardi Gras parade route.

This view shows a glimpse of a far older structure to the east. This building gives an idea of the sort of residential buildings which once existed here. In 1905 it is the office of a physician and the Bienville Pharmacy occupies the Italianate building to the west. Mobile Gas Service will eventually occupy the corner for many years.

A long succession of businesses and insurance agents occupied the first floor of the Hall as the century progressed. None sounds as colorful as The Health Studio which was operating here during the Depression.

The Health Studio attempted to entice health conscious Mobilians within its doors where it offered “baths of all types, electric, vapor and sweat showers...electric treatments of merit and colonic irrigation for constipation.” By the 1940’s much had changed in the world and in Mobile. Mobile Gas Service streamlined the building to the west and sent the handsome iron work to the scrap dealers. The old doctor’s office had long been replaced with newer commercial construction and the Knights’ numbers were dwindling. By 1950 the proud Pythian Castle Hall was stripped of its name and the deep iron gallery. The Blackston Building leased office space without much success apparently. It was replaced with a parking lot by 1956.

Ironically that lot was eventually purchased for the construction of a clubhouse by the very organization that had started the building trend -- The Athelstan Club. The club had outgrown its 1902 quarters three doors to the east and filled the lot with a three-story clubhouse with balconies overlooking Bienville Square and the parade routes. The first floor was reserved for commercial space.

Mobile Gas Service has long ago opted for a Dauphin Street location. Its former space has been remodeled -- most recently with the addition of balconies overlooking the square.


Credit: Wilson Collection, Historic Mobile Preservation Society


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