Community Organizing Prevented Removal of Two Historic Homes, But Their Fate Remains Uncertain

One year ago this week, neighborhood conflict broke out in Mobile, Alabama over two vernacular homes on Conti Street, situated within a designated municipal historic district. That conflict is ongoing.

Just west of downtown, the Old Dauphin Way Historic District has less cachet than the longer-established Oakleigh Garden Historic District to its south, host to generally smaller dwellings than Oakleigh and a wider mix of contemporary building uses. Generational back-to-the-city patterns have reignited private investment in the area, with historic preservation as one core component of its identity. The Old Dauphin Way Historic district is also an emerging gayborhood, one of only a small number in Alabama's cities.

In the mid-2010s, an organization called the Historic Restoration Society purchased a large property on the eastern edge of the district, containing a dilapidated former orphanage and several outbuildings. The organization, led by influential and well-connected Mobile businessman David J. Cooper, Sr., launched a multi-million dollar restoration project intended to create a meeting and event space for a longstanding Mobile Mardi Gras secret society, the Infant Mystics. Neighbors largely welcomed the project at the time, since it would return a historically important building to use after more than half a decade of vacancy. After a fire severely damaged the orphanage building post-restoration in 2020, Cooper and his organization once again ponied up large sums of money to repair it.

But in 2023, Cooper's relationship with local historic preservation communities suddenly and dramatically soured. On May 22nd of that year, neighbors of the Historic Restoration Society's multi-building property were alarmed to find a crew beginning to lift two old houses therein, at 918 and 920 Conti Street. The neighbors were told by contractors that the homes were to be moved 80 miles north to the town of Frisco City, a move being made seemingly in contravention of local preservation rules with no permits secured for the work. The house moving crew claimed the buildings were being donated to another organization for preservation-related purposes, but the recipient organization was publicly unknown - the Historic Restoration Society and the Infant Mystics had not announced any such effort.

Residents of the Old Dauphin Way Historic District quickly put together a campaign called #SaveConti, activating an organization around it under the banner "Friends of Mobile Historic Districts". They pressured the City of Mobile and the property owner to halt the work - no small feat, given Cooper's prominence in Mobile's civic circles. Under strong public pressure, the house moving crew ceased active work on the site and the Historic Restoration Society applied for a permit to move the dwellings. After months of hearings and public campaigning by Friends of Mobile Historic Districts, that permit was denied by the City of Mobile's Architectural Review Board on the grounds that local laws governing Mobile's historic district did not allow for removal of contributing properties.

These photos of 918 and 920 Conti Street were captured in June of 2023, when the outcome of the permit application was not yet determined. But nearly a year later, the site looks almost the same. Similar to the case of the La LucĂ© restaurant building in Chicago, which was granted city protection midway through demolition plans, the owner of the Conti Street cottages has essentially left them as-is, leading to visual and structural decay in the time since.

Cooper is known as a man with deep pockets, and his organization's quick work to repair the former orphanage building on the same property after 2020's fire shows a past ability to execute complex building projects when desired, but the Historic Restoration Society has not even set the Conti Street cottages back onto their foundations, let alone performed additional necessary repair work from the botched move. Organizers behind the #SaveConti campaign continue to pressure city authorities to undertake more significant building code enforcement action against Cooper's organization for its neglect of the homes, hoping for eventual full repair of both of them or a sale of the portion of the Infant Mystics property on which these two houses sit. The fight has attracted significant local media coverage, including thorough ongoing writing from Mobile's Lagniappe alt-weekly, but a resolution has yet to be reached.