Historic Oakleigh is a museum complex located in the Oakleigh Garden Historic District near downtown Mobile, Mobile County. The site, which includes the Oakleigh mansion, a cottage, a Union barracks, and an archive, is owned by the Historic Mobile Preservation Society (HMPS) and interprets pre-1850 society. The main house also serves as exhibit space for artworks. The home was documented by the Historical American Buildings Survey in 1935 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
Historic Oakleigh The house is a Greek Revival two-story frame cottage, but the main floor is raised in the manner of Low Country coastal dwellings. It is one of the largest T-shaped homes in the state, a design element that allows for cross-ventilation to alleviate the Alabama summer heat. The lower floor was originally a raised basement, with a workspace and a garage. The second floor houses the main living quarters. The building features a projecting three-bay front with matching two-bay wings on each side.
James W. Roper, a brick mason, dry-goods merchant, and cotton factor from James City County, Virginia, began construction of the home in 1833 on 35 acres that were outside the city limits at the time. He designed the staircase, which is a quarter-turn, cantilevered staircase that rises to the front door. Enslaved people constructed the home, making its bricks from clay dug on the property. No slave quarters remain, however. During its construction, Roper’s wife, Sarah Ann Davenport, and their child died. In 1838, he married Eliza Ann Simison, the same year construction on the house finished. The couple would have four children.
Roper had borrowed $20,000 to build Oakleigh, but the Panic of 1837 caused financial distress, and he was unable to pay off his loans. The house was repossessed, but Roper’s brother-in-law Boyd Simison bought Oakleigh and half the acreage of the estate and Roper’s 18 enslaved persons. He allowed the Roper family to remain in the home until 1850. Simison also paid for a remodel of the home after an 1840 fire damaged it.
In 1852, Alfred Irwin, a treasurer of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, purchased the home and lived there with his wife, Margaret Kilshaw. During the Civil War, the Irwins used their British citizenship to protect the estate, claiming the property was neutral and hanging a Union Jack from the balcony. Their sons, however, both served in the Confederate States Army and gained local prominence for their involvement. The house passed through several owners until it was bought in 1916 by Herbert Cole, a doctor, and his wife, who owned the property until 1955, when it was purchased by the city of Mobile.
Historic Oakleigh Parlor The museum contains more than 1,000 artifacts related to life in Mobile between the years 1830 and 1900, including a Conning silver collection, a Haviland Limoges china set, and a fine art collection. There are paintings by Mobile native Louise Heustis, Roderick McKenzie, William West, and Thomas Sully, who painted a portrait of local socialite and writer Octavia Walton Le Vert in 1833. The rooms are decorated with period furniture and décor. The Oakleigh Historic Complex includes the Cox-Deasy Cottage (ca.1850), a working-class Creole cottage that serves as an event space, Union barracks (ca. 1867) that has been restored to how it looked in the Reconstruction era, and the Minnie Mitchell Archives, a modern building that houses the archives of the HMPS. Mitchell was a Mobile socialite, who together with husband Alfred Mitchell owned and restored Mobile’s noted Bragg-Mitchell Mansion. The archival collections include historic maps, surname files, Mardi Gras related items, newspapers and clippings, Civil War correspondence, and other special collections. The HMPS also supports the Oakleigh Belles leadership program for high school girls who in turn represent the museum as docents and the historical society at community events dressed in romanticized period clothing.
Historic Oakleigh Union Barracks Historic Oakleigh is located at 350 Oakleigh Street. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 17. Group tours may be arranged but must be coordinated a week in advance for a minimum of 15 people. The house is open Friday, Saturday, and Monday from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. The house hosts a Christmas celebration in December and a Mardi Gras lawn party and other HMPS events.
Nearby are the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum, the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion, the William and Emily Hearin Mobile Carnival Museum, the History Museum of Mobile, Fort Condé, the Condé-Charlotte House and Museum, the Richards DAR House Museum, and the University of South Alabama Archaeology Museum.
Gamble, Robert. The Alabama Catalog: Historic American Buildings Survey. A Guide to the Early Architecture of the State, 1810-1930. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.
———. Historic Architecture in Alabama: A Guide to Styles and Types, 1810-1930. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
Hammond, Ralph. Ante-Bellum Mansions of Alabama. New York: Bonanza Books, 1951.