Bienville Square: Mobile, Alabama

Summary

Located in the heart of downtown Mobile on the former site of a Spanish hospital and named for the French Governor of Louisiana, Jean Baptiste de Bienville, the square is where the city's history, architecture, and commerce converge. One of a unique handful of federal holdings relinquished by Congress in 1824, the square's history predates that of Alabama. It is surrounded by a diverse array of architectural styles, from late Victorian to Neoclassical. It is where President Theodore Roosevelt spoke during a visit in 1905 and the site of today's most popular holiday celebrations and festivals in the city.

Designated Area

The park is bounded by St. Francis to the north; Dauphin to the south; St. Joseph to the east; and North Conception to the west.

Located on the site of a former Spanish hospital, the northeast corner of St. Joseph at St. Francis was designated as a public space in 1824. The square has served as a meeting space since World War II for shipyard workers and is where most of today's festivals and celebrations take place. Photo courtesy Bert Hoffman.

Planning Excellence

Looking ahead, the Mobile 2020 comprehensive plan articulates a vision for the future including more ground-floor retail stores for surrounding buildings, integrated pedestrian paths, and additional landscaping to ensure the square remains the vibrant hub of downtown Mobile.

In 1890, the central fountain was erected honoring Dr. George Ketchum, physician and Bienville Water Supply Company president, for bringing potable water to Mobile. Photo courtesy Bert Hoffman.

Defining Characteristics, Features

History

  • Federal government turns over Old Spanish Hospital land to City of Mobile; Congress specifies land must be used as public park space (1824)
  • ¬†Fire destroys much of Old Mobile, clearing way for new architectural styles (1839); city begins to develop square, adding walkways and landscape (1850)
  • President Theodore Roosevelt delivers speech in square about importance of Panama Canal construction for the Port of Mobile Bay (1905)
  • Square serves as mass meeting point for shipyard workers during World War II
  • Square falls into disuse during 1960s and 1970s; Hurricane Frederic catalyses revival of downtown Mobile, including planting of flowers in Square (1979)
  • Lower Dauphin Historic District includes Square; added to National Register of Historic Places (1979); boundaries extended in 1982, 1995, and 1998
  • Private consultations (2002) and comprehensive city plan (2009) call for rejuvenation of pedestrian-level shops, new directional signage, tourist kiosk

Surrounding architecture

  • Italianate Franklin Fire Engine Company Number Three building (1852), made of stucco over brick, renovated in 1991 with new balcony overlooking square
  • Architect Rudolph Benz's Victorian-style Scheuerman Building (1893) and Classical Revival Spira and Pincus Building (1899) also frame square
  • Architect Seymour Burrel's Kress Building offers pedestrian-friendly facade; McCrory Building displays linear hard edges typical of Art Deco style (1924)
  • Neoclassical Merchants National Bank Building features Deco elements and metal pyramidal roof (1928)

Features and activities

  • Central fountain (1890) honors physician and Bienville Water Works president Dr. George Ketchum who brought safe drinking water to Mobile
  • St. Andrew's Cross (built 1906) honors Mobile founder and former Governor of French Louisiana Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville
  • Plethora of live oaks keep park cool and provide habitat for wildlife; radial walkways through park afford stunning views of downtown skyline
  • Donated by Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1941, the bandstand is a central fixture of such annual events as the Bayfest Music Festival, the Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival, and Mardi Gras
  • The square's central fountain is annually converted into a decorated, lighted holiday tree

The live oaks in the park keep temperatures down and provide habitat for wildlife while the radial walkways provide views of the diverse architecture that surrounds the square. Photo courtesy Bert Hoffman.