By Kathie Farnell
Photos by Jack Purser
Mobile, Alabama’s historic Battle House Hotel, built in 1852 and shuttered since 1974, reopened in May, 2007, following a $220 million renovation. The hotel’s rebirth is the latest chapter in its long and dramatic life. Stephen A. Douglas stayed here the night he lost the 1860 election to Abraham Lincoln. In 1880, a National Weather Station was established in the hotel. In February, 1905, the Battle House burned to the ground, but was rebuilt in 1908; its ornate lobby became known as “Mobile’s living room.” Woodrow Wilson made his first public address here following his inauguration, and a host of brides, debutantes and Mardi Gras revelers have frolicked (or sashayed demurely) through here.
By 1974, the hotel had deteriorated along with the rest of downtown Mobile. It was boarded up until the early 2000s, when the Retirement Systems of Alabama bought and restored it. The splendidly-redone property is now officially a Renaissance Hotel.
The fabulous, marble-floored lobby features elaborate plasterwork decorations and a ceiling dominated by an enormous dome of art glass, installed in 1908. Miraculously, 99% of the colorful glass survived the hotel’s 30 years in mothballs.
Just off the lobby, the Crystal Ballroom, scene of Mobile’s Mardi Gras balls since 1852, features a dramatic curving staircase and a row of crystal chandeliers.
On the second floor, a whispering arch adds a touch of intrigue–a visitor who stands on one side of the 35-foot arch and whispers can be heard clearly at the other side.
The Trellis Room, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, offers Northern Italian cuisine in a setting which includes a stained glass ceiling with a magnolia design. Executive Chef Charles Mereday emphasizes fresh ingredients and takes advantage of the area’s abundant seafood. Our dinner featured sea scallops with a wild mushroom risotto and grilled lamb chops with escarole. Dessert was an opulent espresso crème brulee.
The Grand Ballroom connects the historic Battle House with the 39-story RSA Tower, now the tallest building on the Gulf Coast; its spire was gently lowered into place by helicopter. The 238 guest rooms at the Battle House are located both in the historic section and in the RSA Tower. Our 600 square foot King Suite featured a king size bed, bathroom with separate tub and shower, and sitting area with a queen-size sleeper sofa, all with a view of historic Royal Street. The hotel’s fitness center and European-style spa will open in 2008.
For another view of Mobile’s history, visit the Carnival Museum, located in an historic mansion on elegant Government Street. Mobile is the original home of Mardi Gras, and the museum pays homage to the festive annual gridlock with displays of the jewel-encrusted regalia and gowns worn by Mardi Gras royalty.
Décor includes the huge papier-mache dragon VernaDean who annually graces one of the leading parade floats, and a number of photos of celebrations past, as well as a float mockup from which kids can hurl Moon Pies into a faux crowd.
Wintzell’s Oyster House, located nearby at 310 Dauphin Street, has offered a taste of historic Mobile since 1938. This venerable spot features oysters “fried, stewed, and nude” along with world-class gumbo and bread pudding, all eaten amid hundreds and hundreds of hand-lettered signs offering free advice–“Come In B4 We Both Starve!”
Mobile, on Mobile Bay in south Alabama, is located at the intersection of Interstates 10 and 65 and is served by major airlines on daily flights into Mobile Regional Airport.
For more information on Mobile, contact the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-5Mobile or check the website at www.mobilebay.org