By: John S. Sledge; Photography by Sheila Hagler
Reviewed by: Dee Jordan
University of Georgia Press, 2009
Like most readers, I don’t understand the intricacies of nineteenth century architecture. However, in his new book The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile scholar and Mobile Press-Register books editor John S. Sledge reveals his passion and knowledge of architectural history. And this history is fascinating.
Reading this book is like viewing a city through a microscope. First, Sledge gives readers a short history lesson on the importance of classical Greece’s influence on the world’s architecture. He then zooms in on various countries including the United States. He keeps zooming in until he reveals the cell’s nucleus—the exquisite city of Mobile.
According to Sledge, out of great builders grew men such as Claude Beroujon who created the beautiful Spring Hill College in an attempt to reinvigorate local Catholicism amid the burgeoning Protestant population. The original structure burned to the ground in 1869. Sledge also notes what many wrote of the finest example of Greek Revival, the Government Street Presbyterian Church, which brought classical dignity to Mobile. (This beauty is my favorite Sheila Hagler photograph.) During this period of the 1830s, contractor John K. Collins completed the construction of City Hospital, a monumental undertaking that drew national attention. Hagler also shows us this fine example with her photography.
If Mobile has a founding father, Sledge writes, it would have to be Henry Hitchcock and his influence on the building and rebuilding of Mobile in the 1830s. Mobile flourished even though she suffered through two fires, one in the 1820s and another in the 1830s that destroyed many of her best buildings. These fires left thousands of people homeless. Another smaller fire, by comparison, took the grandest hotel in the South, the United States Hotel, considered one of the three best in the nation.
Following these fires, Sledge writes, “…Mobile slowly recovered its balance and by the eve of the Civil War was once again a prosperous place. The Greek Revival was no longer dominant, but it remained influential and important. The city’s elites moved out to surrounding areas like Spring Hill and the Eastern Shore and erected comfortable country retreats that were easy blends of the Greek Revival and the vernacular.”
Hagler’s beautiful black and white photographs punctuate the beauty and grace of the Greek Revival style. The book also includes old plates of places long destroyed by either fire or progress.
The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile is a tedious read unless you’re into architecture, but it is well worth the valuable history lessons it teaches. Nov 2009
Dee Jordan is the author of the newly published novel In and Out of Madness, written under the nom de plume N. L. Snowden.