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How To Be A historic Homeowner In Mobile, Alabama

Updated on December 22, 2014
An Italianate  home in the DeTonti Square Historic District, north of Downtown Mobile, Alabama
An Italianate home in the DeTonti Square Historic District, north of Downtown Mobile, Alabama
Creole house in downtown Mobile, the Lower Dauphin HIstoric District
Creole house in downtown Mobile, the Lower Dauphin HIstoric District

So You Want to Live in an Historic District...

You've driven through the live oak tree-lined Midtown and shaded, ancient downtown streets of Mobile admiring the architecture of the bungalows, Victorians, Italianate brick townhomes, and Creole cottages that still remain in the town of Mobile, Alabama. The small city was once the third largest port in the nation during the cotton boom before the Civil War; today it still is quite busy as the ninth largest port with a small town feel. While many homes have been the victim of heavy-handed overly progressive business interests over the years, many pleasant properties dating from the mid-1800s and onward still stand, waiting for you. This area is epic for its porch parties and neighborliness in an eclectic, elegant setting. What type of cost or extra work will this entail versus a home elsewhere in the Mobile Bay area?

Historic Homes of Mobile

An Oakleigh Garden District area Queen Anne Victorian home on Government Street, once home to wealthy cotton brokers.
An Oakleigh Garden District area Queen Anne Victorian home on Government Street, once home to wealthy cotton brokers.
Adorable Dutch Colonial Revival in Flo Claire, an early subdivision of the Leinkauf Historic District
Adorable Dutch Colonial Revival in Flo Claire, an early subdivision of the Leinkauf Historic District
The liveable Craftsman bungalow of Old Dauphinway HIstoric District, the largest district in Midtown.
The liveable Craftsman bungalow of Old Dauphinway HIstoric District, the largest district in Midtown.

Where to Start: The Mobile Historic Development Commission

The first thing a responsible historic homeowner should do is visit the Mobile Historic Development Commission website to research what things are and aren't allowed. The good news is Mobile is actually not as strict as Charleston, which designates what you can or cannot do to even the inside. Their concern is the exterior facade as it relates to the historic district architectural fabric. To really put it all in realistic perspective, the historic districts aren't nearly as strict as your typical suburban homeowners association.

Many homeowners get very confused between the different preservation groups in the city. A homeowner will need to start with the city-run entity, the (MHDC) Mobile HIstoric Development Commission, which is actually the city enforcement of all the districts in Mobile. Under their umbrella is the ARB, or Architectural Review Board, a highly-trained volunteer board, which will oversee any renovations you think to do to your home. Also, under the MHDC is the Banner and Shield Committee which awards the historic shields you see around town. They are awarded two times a year. While the Banner and Shield is entirely optional and has higher standards than ARB; the Architectural Review Board is not optional. Both boards include skilled volunteer architects. So first, you'll need a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Mobile Historic Development Commission ARB to do in depth exterior renovations of your home.

AFTER exterior renovations are done, you can choose to apply for the Historic Marker Program through the Banner and Shield Committee. Again, that is an optional step most do not take and your home must be 75 years old or older. That particular committee will scrutize everything from your door style to the mildew, so make sure everything is freshly painted and FINISHED before applying for the Historical Marker Program.

The purpose of these groups is to protect the integrity of the historic districts. If you are interested in plastic exterior shutters, if you think that you should put a random Home Depot spindle in place of hand-turned spindles on your Victorian porch, or if you love satellite dishes littering your landscape, you really probably aren't going to be happy in historic Mobile districts. So, please, if you are that type of person- please move to the hinterlands of the Mobile area.


Historic Homeowner Short List

  • Contact the city's Mobile Historic Development Commission for FREE advice BEFORE you do any changes to the exterior.
  • Check out the Design Guidelines on the website to get an idea of what the historic districts can or cannot have.
  • Apply to the Architectural Review Board (not the Historic Marker program) for approval of any changes to the exterior.
  • Tape a Certificate of Commendation to your window before you commence any work on the exterior.
  • If your home is now in great condition as well as truly historically accurate, consider applying for a Banner and Shield with the House Marker Program.
  • Enjoy your historic home. Invite your neighbors over for a porch party.

You Thought This Door Would Look Good?????

The Certificate of Appropriateness Process

After you've researched the Mobile Historic Development Commission website at mobilehd.org, pick up the phone and call one of the knowledgeable architectural historians employed by the city. They are a free help so use this great resource! I can't say enough good things about them. They have saved me money and time with their collection of photos of old homes I've renovated over the years that they have archived from the 1960s and 1970s. With these photos, most homeowners should be able to tell what the door or windows once looked like or how the front steps once appeared to aid in returning a decrepit and run-down home back to its original appearance. In addition, if you have just something small to do, like painting and repairing old wood to appropriate condition, you can call them, give them your paint company color number and they can issue you a Certificate of Appropriateness, without having to go through the full Architecture Review Board process. They'll even guide you through that process if you need help with that. All historic home owners will need this Certificate before they can get a building permit.

Do follow these simple rules: it is enforceable by the city. Don't like the decision made by the knowledgeable, educated staff? A decision which is typically not as stringent as many other cities??? You can appeal it to the city council, but be aware that tons of volunteer proponents of preservation and certainly your neighbors will come out to oppose you and typically win. Most historic district residents take their investment very seriously and don't appreciate others who don't. This is where the MHDC staff can save you from your bad decisions. You thought you were doing the right thing putting in a new house door that is all the rage in Fairhope, but someone called 311 on you because it should have been a Victorian style door. That smiling neighbor probably just called 311 anonymously on you and your over-exuberant tree-trimming too. They aren't called the Hysterical Districts for nothing. And then it's no more porch parties and cheese straws for you! The subtle cold shoulder you receive from the neighbors will be worse than anything the city department could ever dish out.....

Downtown Living in Mobile, Alabama

How to Care For Your Historic Investment

One of the things I really enjoy is continuing to educate myself on historic homes through research as a hobby. This helps me make the right choices in the first place simply by flipping through magazines like "Traditional Home" or "This Old House". After a while, you begin to easily see what doesn't look right and what does. This type of care for historic homes apparently translates into increased investment value for historic homes in Mobile. For instance, in the summer of 2014, historic Midtown was the top riser in selling price. If you love historic homes and feel you need to learn more to be a good steward of your property, there is a special class you should look into. Each year, the Mobile HIstoric Development Commission offers a Preservation Leadership class in March for a small cost, usually $50. It's a stellar, in depth, highly interesting six week class that anyone can attend and features different architecture historians speaking on the architecture of the city. The last class usually includes a celebration and in-depth visit of a home being renovated. You should call the Mobile Historic Development Commission for more information. The rewards of owning something as special as a home in one of the historic districts easily outweigh the extra steps you have to take with your historic treasure.


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