Nestled in a cluster of residential homes sits a brilliant Greek Revival masterpiece. Its property is shielded by towering live oak trees whose branches twist and curve, covered in blankets of greenery that gives the estate a true Southern aesthetic. This home, named for the meadow of oaks that surrounds it, Oakleigh now stands as the oldest house museum in Mobile, Alabama.
It first began construction in the 1830s under the name of James W. Roper, a brick mason from James City County, Virginia who was also a dry goods merchant and cotton factor. He chose this collection of 35 acres for the quality of clay he could extract from the ground for his enterprises. Mobile, unlike most of the south, wasn’t ideal for growing cotton. Instead, like Roper, merchants made their wealth in selling it for the planters who had it shipped in and out of the port city. Roper utilized slave labor to dig up the clay and make bricks. Today, a large fountain and sunken garden mark the place where they would have dug. An earlier resident of the home converted it into a pond, which became a breeding ground for mosquitos that carried diseases.
The home was originally built with the bottom ground floor completely open to the elements with a staircase winding up to the front porch on what is really the second floor of the home. Also in traditional southern style, the roof of the porch is painted “Haint Blue”. This special type of paint did two things for a home of the south. The more superstitious homeowners did it to keep away evil spirits who couldn’t cross water, which the light blue hue emulated. The other more practical application was to repel mosquitos and keep birds and wasps from creating their nests in a place that so closely resembled water. Either way, the paint did its job for the Oakleigh house.
Once inside, a long foyer greets guests to the home, lined with portraits and mirrors. To the left is the parlor with a cheery white marble fireplace. Separating the parlor from the dining room is a heavy set of pocket doors. Two windows flanking the dining room fireplace hold a secret. They’re actually doors that open up onto the porch for servants’ access, called “jib doors”. Beyond the room decked with fine china are the four family bed chambers and stairs down to the cook’s house and lawn below. The home’s T-shape design is one of the largest in the state of Alabama.
Tragically, before the last nail was pounded into place, Roper’s wife, Sarah Ann Davenport, and his child passed away. Though he remarried in 1838 to Eliza Ann Simison and had four children, times were not well for the family. In the Panic of 1837, Roper’s finances were crumbling and the bank repossessed the house when he couldn’t pay his loans. His brother-in-law, Boyd Simison, was a little better off and bought the house to give his sister’s family a home. They lived rent-free until 1850 when the Ropers moved out and away to New Orleans to start up a new life in the lumber business.
Oakleigh passed into the hands of Alfred Irwin, treasurer of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, in 1852. He and his wife, Margaret Kilshaw Irwin, were theater enthusiasts who saved the home from Union occupation during the Civil War. Margaret, having a flair for the theatrics, waved a Union Jack outside her window and declared the property to be neutral territory since she was British. What the Federals didn’t know was that her two sons, T.K. and Lee Fearn both served in the Confederate army. T.K. was even an aide to Confederate president, Jefferson Davis.
T.K. inherited the home and married Mary Anna Ketchum. The property was passed down to their daughter, Daisy Irwin Clisby, who later sold it in 1916 to the Cole family. The Coles closed in the open bottom portion of the home that was once used for storage. They converted this space into more living quarters which is now where the gift shop, special exhibit on the theaters of Mobile, and staff rooms are located. A set of stairs were added to the inside of the home within the foyer so family members could easily get to both floors without having to use the exterior curved stairs. The Denizens, the owners after the Coles, added a bathroom to the original story that (at the time of my visit) was being converted into a kitchen area for historical interpretation.
The Oakleigh House has survived epidemics, a Union occupation, and the transfer of four families over nearly two hundred years. Today, instead of being utilized for weddings or as a bed and breakfast like most antebellum homes, it has maintained its dedication to historical interpretation by partnering with the Historic Mobile Preservation Society. Other buildings on the property include the Cox-Beasley House, which was built in 1850 as a tenant home on the property and is used as a program space for the society. Another structure, much newer, is the Minnie Mitchell building, housing records and archives related to the Oakleigh families and other historic Mobile documents. One structure that was commonly mistaken as slave quarters sitting behind the house, was actually used as a kitchen and then to house Union troops during the Reconstruction Era in Mobile.
The home itself, though it possesses none of the original furniture, is a repository of paintings and relics that tell the story of Mobile’s elite society. The docents are well versed in the story of every piece and provide a historically rich experience for their guests. If you time your visit right, you may even be guided by an Oakleigh Belle! According to the Oakleigh website, “The OAKLEIGH BELLES are a group of young women who represent the Historic Mobile Preservation Society and the community as ambassadors of southern history, culture, and hospitality. The program, which began in 2008, instructs high school students in historic preservation and providing them with the skills needed to confidently serve as docents at the Historic Oakleigh House Museum.”
The Oakleigh House, like all of the mansion museums in Mobile, are a must-see for any traveler who wants to learn not only the history of the home, but the history of Mobile itself. But you have to catch them at the right time. They’re only open Friday, Saturday, and Monday between 10am and 4pm, then on Sundays between 1pm and 4pm, with all of their last tours starting at 3pm. The tour fee is $10, but free for HMPS members and children under 5. Parking is easy and free, since the street Oakleigh sits on now dead-ends into the parking lot. They’re just minutes from other attractions in Mobile.
Address: 350 Oakleigh Place, Mobile, AL 36604