By Laura Jane Rogers and Elizabeth Wade
NOTE: This article was originally published in Alabama Heritage magazine. All rights reserved. Permission to publish on this website is granted by Alabama Heritage. www.alabamaheritage.com
Near the banks of the Mobile River, the Condé Charlotte Museum House contains artifacts from multiple periods of Mobile history. Visitors learn about the area’s complex history under various European sovereigns, its entry into the American territory, and its position as a Confederate city under Union siege during the Civil War.The Condé Charlotte collection contains representative items—including furnishings, clothing, and artwork—from each era. While these artifacts are valuable as art objects, they also reveal a great deal about the lives of their owners and creators. One noted piece is the Chaudron silver service. Frenchman Simon Chaudron, maker of the service, was the quintessential Renaissance man: a silversmith and goldsmith, watchmaker, newspaper editor, wine importer, orator, and poet. Baptized Jean Simon Chaudron in Champagne, France, in 1758, Chaudron lived a well-traveled life. In 1784 he apprenticed himself to a Swiss watchmaker in Haiti. In 1791 he married Jeanne Stollenwerck, daughter and sister of his partners in the trade business between Santo Domingo and the United States. Chaudron and his bride fled Haiti’s 1793 slave rebellion, traveling to Philadelphia, where he became a prominent citizen, noted for his oration upon George Washington’s death. After setbacks, the Chaudrons fled Philadelphia in 1818, this time moving south, to the Vine and Olive colony in Demopolis, Alabama. Hardships, including failed crops, caused the Chaudrons’ migration to Mobile several years later. In Mobile, where he remained until his death at age eighty-eight, Chaudron became the successful owner of a watch repair establishment and a wine import business, and entertained such famous guests as the Marquis de Lafayette.
Condé Charlotte has a variety of artifacts, such as the Chaudron silver service—pieces that help us understand life in previous eras. But unlike many museums, whose exteriors remain disconnected from the items in the collection, what surrounds Conde Charlotte is just as interesting and historically relevant as the artifacts inside it. The house and its surroundings have witnessed a substantial part of Mobile’s history, and over the last two centuries the land it stands on has been the site of military, civic, personal, and historical events. However, due to an absence of historical records, many details of the complex and enigmatic history of the Condé Charlotte site remain unknown. In recent years preservationists, historians, architects, and archaeologists have devoted substantial time and resources to uncovering the complete story of the house and the land it stands on.
When exploring the history of a building, researchers often start with the most recent events, because they are generally more accessible and better documented than events dating from several centuries ago. Condé Charlotte proves no exception, and for most researchers, the start of the house’s story is not at the traditional “beginning”— the events that happened long ago — but at the present-day. The challenge, then, is not to tell how the house transformed from its origins to its present incarnation, but to take that contemporary identity and move backward, to see how what it is today both reflects and obscures what it used to be. The history of Condé Charlotte emerges as a modern-day mystery of substantial proportions, one that traces the site’s many identities — as a museum, an office, a dwelling, a prison, and even a highly contested corner of land in the territory that would become Alabama.
PRESENT-DAY: THE CONDÉ CHARLOTTE MUSEUM HOUSE
The current owners of Condé Charlotte, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Alabama (NSCDA in AL), bought the property from the City of Mobile in 1957. At the time, the property, which was named after a former owner, was known as the Kirkbride House. In 1961 the NSCDA in AL changed the name to the Fort Condé-Charlotte House, reflecting the site’s historic location, adjacent to the present-day Fort Condé. (Eventually, the name was changed to the house’s current title, the Condé Charlotte Museum House.) On December 1, 1961, the NSCDA in AL “proudly opened the doors” of the structure for preservation and educational purposes. Although it has endured temporary closings due to hurricane damage and nearby construction projects, the house has remained open as a museum since that date, in spite of rising expenses associated with owning and maintaining the museum.The road to the museum’s opening was circuitous. First, the house underwent restoration, receiving new paint, doors, carpets, rugs, chandeliers, and a new mantle. Led by Mrs. Harris Vaughan, chairman of the NSCDA in AL restoration committee, and Mrs. Charles Rutherford, furnishings chairman, the NSCDA in AL furnished the house with period pieces reflecting Mobile’s rich history. The first level featured four rooms, each with a unique display representing a distinct portion of Mobile history: an English parlor reflecting Mobile under British rule (the early 1760s through the early 1780s); another parlor representing the early 1800s; a room depicting the Confederate period; and the “museum room,” which held a variety of artifacts, including a replica of the 1711 French Fort Condé. The NSCDA in AL have preserved an opening in the room’s wooden floor, offering visitors a glimpse of a two-foot-thick brick floor dating from at least the 1820s, when a jail was built at the site.About ten years into the museum’s tenure, community needs dictated an interruption in its service. The house was closed in 1970 for the construction of the George C. Wallace tunnels on Interstate 10. During construction, the house was leased as office space to the company building the tunnels, which are located in close proximity to Condé Charlotte. During tunnel construction, pile driving damaged the north wall of the house, leaving cracks that continue to require routine repairs. Condé Charlotte also closed unexpectedly in September 1979, when Hurricane Frederic struck Mobile. The hurricane’s strong winds caused roof and window damage to the house, and the rising damp—caused by water rising from the saturated ground and seeping into buildings—damaged the interior’s plaster walls. The basic repairs were made quickly, and the museum reopened in November. However, architect Nick Holmes Jr. (son of Nick Holmes Sr. who worked as advisor for the house’s preservation in the 1940s) recommended installing French drains around the building to help prevent rising damp in the future, and Condé Charlotte was closed from June 1980 to February 1981 to facilitate this renovation. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, and Condé Charlotte suffered further damage. Wind blew the paint off the house, causing the ground around it to look as if it “were covered in snow,” according to eyewitnesses. Water penetrated the walls and a column, causing interior and exterior plaster to buckle and crack. Funds received from a Hurricane Katrina Relief Grant in 2008 from the Alabama Historical Commission and the National Park Service enabled the NSCDA in AL to have the house painted and repaired. Cindy Klotz, an architect in Mobile, oversaw the repairs and continues to advise the NSCDA in AL. Despite unexpected expenses and hardships, the NSCDA in AL remains determined to fulfill the goal of preserving the house and its contents for use in educating local, national, and international guests and offering an overview of Mobile’s local and regional history.
1940–1957: CENTRAL TO MOBILE SOCIETY
Prior to its purchase by the NSCDA in AL, Condé Charlotte was overseen by the City of Mobile and the Historic Mobile Preservation Society (HMPS). The HMPS purchased the property in 1940 and conveyed an interest in it to the city, which provided upkeep for the property, so long as it was used as a “historic site and museum.” The Kirkbride House, as it was then known, had been owned privately, suffered foreclosure, and condemned as unsafe, so the HMPS was anxious to preserve it from destruction. Under the direction of architects N. H. Holmes Sr. and Eugene Gray, the house underwent extensive renovations in the 1940s. Using labor from the National Youth Administration, the architects oversaw a great deal of work. Crews installed new plumbing, electrical wiring, and a new slate roof; replastered interior walls; replaced stucco on exterior walls and the interior floors on the first floor; bricked the front porch floor; and conducted a number of needed repairs to rails, columns, cornices, and framing. Initially, the HMPS used the property as a headquarters and archives. However, during World War II, the U.S. Navy used the house as an Officers’ Club. After the war, the HMPS opened the house for public tours and special events. Among the many young women who held wedding receptions at the Kirkbride House was Mobilian Georgetta Flinn Burke. Born in Mobile in 1925, Burke was named after her uncle, George Flinn, who owned the Kirkbride House with his wife from 1926 until 1933. Burke remembers visiting her aunt and uncle there as a young child. Years later, she and her fiancé Gerald chose the house for their April 1950 wedding reception—but not from nostalgia. Burke recalls wanting to hold the reception at the Kirkbride House because it “was the place to be.” Guests at the reception enjoyed the patio at the back of the Kirkbride House, while young attendants passed food on silver trays. The mantle in the parlor, where most photographs were taken, held ferns, white candles, and white flowers.
The Burkes’ wedding photographs reveal several changes in the house between then and now. In 1950 the house was painted white, not cream, and it lacked shutters. Today its mahogany shutters can be closed during bad weather. The sidewalk in 1950 was wider and made of cement rather than brick. In the house’s rear wing, the kitchen was used by the caterer; a bathroom and small room upstairs were used as the bride’s room to dress in her “going away outfit.” Its walls were paneled wood; now they are plaster. The room is now used for meetings and for Girl Scouts earning badges based on history and patriotism. Only the downstairs rooms were used for the reception, and most of the interior photographs were taken in what is now the British room, which holds eighteenth-century antiques. In 1950 it was a sparsely decorated parlor containing a few Victorian chairs, wall-to-wall floral carpet and rose floral draperies, and a small crystal chandelier. The mantle was simple, as it is now. However, it had an arched opening designating it as Victorian, compared to the square opening it exhibits today.
As a young bride, Burke probably never suspected that the house would hold yet another place in her future. However, in 1991, after raising six children, Burke became a guide at the museum. During a bridge game, her friend Sarah Crawford, a long-time guide at the museum, mentioned that the CCMH needed more volunteers. Burke and Crawford have served as guides at Condé Charlotte ever since, and Burke calls her repeated connections to the house an example of “the circle of life.”
In 1955 the HMPS moved its headquarters from the Kirkbride House to Oakleigh, another historic Mobile property. According to the society’s minutes, Caldwell Delaney (head of the committee considering the move) cited Oakleigh’s “architectural and historic merit,” its well-preserved condition and recent renovations, its extensive grounds, and its well-documented history as reasons for the move. Despite the move, property records show that the HMPS retained an interest in the Kirkbride House until 1957, when it transferred the property to the City of Mobile. In turn, the city sold the property to the NSCDA in AL.
1926 –1940: BOARDING HOUSE
When George Flinn purchased the Kirkbride House in 1926, he became the first person outside the Kirkbride family to own the property since the house’s construction in 1850. Flinn and his wife used the home as a single-family residence. However, a 1930 U.S. Census reports that they no longer resided there. Rather, during the Great Depression, the Flinns used the property as a boarding house, as did subsequent owners.
While visiting the Kirkbride House in 2004, Lucille Turner Thompson shared stories of her ancestors’ time in the home. From 1929 to 1932, George and Mattie Horne, Thompson’s grandparents, lived in the home, along with several families. Census records show that twelve people lived on the property. Thompson recalls, “During that time [1929–1932] the Hornes rented out rooms in and behind the house to family members, shipyard workers, and seamen, to supplement their income.”
Another former resident, Lillian Lowe Henley remembers living in the house as a child, when her family rented it and used it for a boarding house. The Henleys lived in the front southeast room in the main house. The room was their bedroom and living room. The room behind their bedroom was the kitchen and eating area for the family, boarders, and other diners. Another family with children lived across the hall from Lillian’s bedroom in the southwest room. More residents lived in bedrooms upstairs and in the back wing. As a child, Lillian was told the house once served as the “oldest courthouse in Mobile.” Legends told to young children stated that men were hung in the attic; their bodies were reportedly deposited out back in a brick room, which is now a storage shed. With a child’s curiosity, Lillian and a friend once dug around the bricks and found a woman’s button-up shoe. In the children’s mind, the shoe confirmed that indeed people were buried under the brick floor, and they promptly stopped their digging.
During this era, the house fell into disrepair, as the Depression limited funds. Although it was recognized as a significant Mobile landmark (the Historic American Buildings Survey photographed the house around 1933), the house remained in deplorable condition. It underwent foreclosure in 1936 and remained in the possession of a loan company until the HMPS purchased it in 1940.
1850 –1926: THE KIRKBRIDE HOUSE
The Kirkbride House was particularly suited for children, because it had been constructed with them in mind. The house was built in 1850 by Jonathan Kirkbride, whose family and descendants lived there until 1926. Kirkbride came to Mobile from New Jersey as a child, but as an adult, he became a prominent citizen of Mobile, establishing himself as a wine merchant, the owner of a watch shop, and a master builder. In 1844 he married Elizabeth Atwood Bassett, and the young couple began raising a family. An 1849 deed records Kirkbride’s purchase (made with Robert Ellis) of a lot on Theater Street—the same lot that now holds Condé Charlotte. The pair paid $1,013.34 for the property. Tax records from 1851 show that a “brick house” had been constructed on the lot, and the property value had increased accordingly to five thousand dollars. (The current house is stucco over brick.) The Kirkbrides and their first two children, Isabel (Belle) and William Henry, settled into the new residence and quickly filled its many rooms. Daughter Sarah was born around the time of the house’s completion. Millard Filmore, Estelle Filipe, and Edwin Baldwin soon followed.
Today, the house’s Confederate parlors and two upstairs bedrooms suggest the Kirkbrides’ lifestyle and are furnished in keeping with Mobile traditions from 1850–65. For example, a stenciled bed (ca 1840–50) with trundle bed underneath holds a mattress supported with ropes which can be tightened or loosened with a crank. Anne Layfield, manager, board member, and guide at Condé Charlotte, likes to joke that if company stayed too long, their hosts may have loosened the ropes so that the mattress was uncomfortable, therefore, enticing guests to depart. The bedrooms also contain many other interesting pieces, including an American cherry and mahogany chest (ca 1810), a blue painted tin wash tub (ca 1850), a cowhide trunk (ca 1850), and a crib that came from Cahawba, Alabama’s first capital. Portraits of Jonathan and Elizabeth Kirkbride, donated to the house by descendants, hang in one upstairs bedroom, reminding visitors of the house’s first inhabitants.
BEFORE THE KIRKBRIDE HOUSE:
The Kirkbride family reflects only a small part of the history of the lot on Theater Street. The deed reflecting Jonathan Kirkbride’s purchase refers to the property as the site of “the old jail,” and while little is documented about this site, the house itself has revealed several intriguing clues about its presence. A 1947 restoration report by architect Nick Holmes Sr. recounts a seemingly routine floor replacement in the house and the subsequent discovery of a brick foundation and outline of several jail cells. Holmes believes that the two-foot-thick brick foundation could have formed part of the jail structure to prevent the escape of prisoners. During the excavation, brass knuckles were found under a loosened brick. Holmes speculated they could have been hidden by a prisoner planning to escape. Researchers believe that Jonathan Kirkbride used the brick foundation to form part of the structure of his home. According to the Mobile Landmarks Inventory conducted by the Mobile City Planning Commission, “Structural evidence observed by N. H. Holmes, Sr. indicates that some parts of the house may date from the jail built in 1822–1824. After inspection of the house, Samuel Wilson Jr. believes that a major part of it was built prior to the Ellis/Kirkbride ownership” of the property. If this is correct, then Kirkbride created his home with the help of a structure that already existed— and that represents an even earlier era in the site’s history.
However, researchers have also discovered eighteenth- century artifacts at the site, showing that it was in use before the jail structure was built. Condé Charlotte stands quite near the present-day site of Fort Condé—a structure whose history predates Alabama’s statehood. In 1711, when France ruled Mobile, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville—colonizer, governor of French Louisiana, and founder of Mobile—built a log fort on the site. It was eventually replaced with a brick structure, named Fort Condé after the French General and Count Condé. Under British rule, it was christened Fort Charlotte; when Spain claimed it, it was renamed Fort Carlota. The fort was torn down in the early 1820s. A smaller replica was built and opened in the 1970s. Fort Condé serves as Mobile’s welcome center. Condé Charlotte honors its connection to the fort site through the displays of two cannons, one each from Fort Condé and Fort Charlotte.
In November 1974, when repairing Condé Charlotte, Lewis Mayson II discovered “old brick four courses thick” beneath the floor. Subsequent investigations revealed that these bricks closely resembled bricks taken from Fort Condé. In 1975 Lee Allen excavated three privies on the property and, based on the artifacts discovered, concluded that the site had served as the jail privy from approximately 1823–39. Among the items discovered were a green master snuff bottle, circa 1785–1830, that is a rare collector’s item; pieces of broken bottles and china; clay pipes; handmade nails; pearl buttons; and hinges. The dates of the artifacts range from 1740 to 1842 and reflect the depth of the site’s history. Allen also unearthed a piece of cyprus cut nearly square that was “identical to Cyprus beams excavated from the original fort foundations built in 1703,” adding further evidence to the hypothesis that the house and the fort shared a common foundation. An early nineteenth-century map of the plan for the city of Mobile shows a “King’s Magazine” on the south side of the fort, possibly where the house stands today. The brick fort stood until the early 1820s, when defense was no longer needed in Mobile, and Congress approved the demolition of the fort. Records show that the property passed into private ownership, and then to the city, which oversaw the construction of the jail. Evidence suggests that the approved demolition was preempted by the sale of the property, and the foundation of the fort became the foundation of the jail. However, preservationists, historians, and archaeologists are still working to verify or disprove this hypothesis. For now, the early history of the Condé Charlotte Museum House and its lot remains a mystery.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Laura Jane Poole Rogers is proud to have grown up in Eutaw, the heart of the Blackbelt of Alabama. After briefly attending the University of Alabama, she married Dr. David Rogers. While and after raising four children with her husband, Laura attended the University of South Alabama (USA) in Mobile, Parsons School of Design in New York city, and the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), earning a BA and MA from USA and a PhD in Communication from USM. She divides her time between communication and historical research, exercising, reading, writing, teaching at USA, preservation activities related to CCMH, and family and friends. She was co-chairperson of the Condé Charlotte Museum House board of directors when this article was written in 2010.
Elizabeth Wade serves as an assistant editor for Alabama Heritage and is a PhD candidate in American literature at the University of Alabama. Her recent work appears in or is forthcoming from such journals as Poet Lore, the Oxford American, and Arts and Letters. She is currently working to establish an archive of materials related to Alabama fortune-teller Rena Teel.