Then and Now
April 28, 1998
by Tom McGehee
The north side of Mobile's Bienville Square was handsome enough by 1903 to be captured in a post card view. Here is the new Athelstan Club house at center with the Bienville Hotel just visible to its east. The two brick houses to the west appear dwarfed by their new neighbor but pleasantly reflect the once residential character of the street.
Bienville Square by this time was a social hub for Mobilians. To the west of this view is the Knights of Pythias Hall and on the east side of the square is the towering Masonic Temple completed in 1901.
The Athelstan Club itself had moved to Bienville Square by 1877 when a three story Italianate structure became the club headquarters. The club occupied two galleried floors above valuable commercial space on the ground floor. Rents assisted the expenses of the club. The building occupied the north east corner of Dauphin and St. Joseph Streets. Its ground floor survives.
The Athelstan was originally one of the many Masonic orders which flourished in post- bellum Mobile. The organization shed all Masonic ties a year after its 1873 founding to become a private social club. A Masonic credence against alcohol may have contributed to the decision.
The club's first president had been an Englishman, Henry Allen Lowe. Lowe was a successful cotton merchant and had married Cornelia Hopkins whose father was Alabama's Chief Justice of its Supreme Court. The club has had a distinguished list of leaders ever since.
By the end of the nineteenth century the club needed more space and obtained a lot at 158 St. Francis Street. For $20,000 in construction costs the members got a memorable building where the Romanesque met the Classical Revival head-on. A rathskeller on the ground floor was topped by two floors of social rooms, each equipped with a shiny brass spittoon.
A hurricane relieved the building of its wonderful observatory early on. George B. Rogers expanded the building back to St. Michael Street in the twenties as the club flourished.
By the late sixties the club was deemed inadequate. A lot was obtained to the west at 170 St. Francis Street and seventy years of history was demolished for a parking lot by 1972. Many of the architectural features including the grand entrance doors of the old building were included in the new club house.
The Bienville Hotel was razed to make way for a bank building. The bank subsequently vacated the location and an insurance firm occupies the corner. The brick homes in the earlier view were demolished in the twenties to be replaced with office space.