It’s hailed as the first skyscraper on the Gulf Coast and one of the first in the Southeast, an 11-story reinforced concrete, terracotta-clad marvel that rose in downtown Mobile at Dauphin and Royal streets starting in 1906.
Finished two years later, the slender, elegant Van Antwerp Building long stood as a focal point of Mobile, greeting downtown denizens through the expansive drug store of the same name. Crystal chandeliers glittered from a 20-foot ceiling. Customers sitting along the 53-foot white marble soda fountain admired their reflections in mahogany-framed mirrors. There was even a rare-for-the-time ladies’ powder room on the second floor. Above were physician and dentist offices before doctors found it practical to work closer to hospitals on Spring Hill Avenue.
When malls arrived in the 1960s, the Van Antwerp was abandoned, for the most part, and began a time as a lady in waiting — too impressive for the wrecking ball but no easy task for renovators. In an age requiring accessible design she had but one tiny stairwell, two ancient Otis elevators and a fire escape that led out a window. The building’s electrical service was housed in a room the size of a bedroom closet. And its cast-in-place crown, an impressive concrete cornice that evoked big-city classical authority, was removed years earlier in response to a demand from the city after a similar architectural feature crashed to the street in Birmingham, killing a passerby.
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So there she sat, awaiting a miracle, which was eventually wrought decades later by an angel from Montgomery.
“We got a call from RSA maybe four years ago now. They told me they’d bought the building and we’d seen it before, having worked on the Trustmark Building and the Battle House, ” says Tracy Bassett, director of architecture for Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood. “When we heard the scope of what they wanted to do, basically restore it and put in offices, we immediately noticed some challenges that came with it.”
There were the usual puzzles of an older building, in this case complicated by a small footprint and shared walls with three open-for-business stores on Dauphin Street. Doster Construction Co. drilled hundreds of micropiles, deep foundation supports of high-strength, small-diameter steel casing and bar, to stabilize the building. Old warehouses behind the main building were torn down to make room for an 11-story addition to house electrical and mechanical requirements, elevators and a small amount of office space. The windows, formerly made of wood, were replaced with metal-clad versions that require little maintenance. The outside bricks were resealed.
Trickiest of all was replacing that concrete cornice. The GMC architect charged with the task, Catarina Echols, went on a “Wild Kingdom” expedition of sorts with Elizabeth Van Antwerp, granddaughter of the original builder, to find what was left of the cornice on the family’s farm in Mobile County. It lay in ruins as ditch fill material and had attracted a few cottonmouth snakes as neighbors. Echols and Van Antwerp nevertheless went forth, photographing and even managing to put enough pieces together to eventually create a template of the proportions and details involved. The company that created the replacement cornice used Echols’ and Van Antwerp’s data to ensure that the new cornice was a proper match.
“It was like a jigsaw puzzle, and she pieced it all together, ” Van Antwerp said at a July reception that celebrated the reborn building. “We had a photograph of when the cornice was taken down, and Catarina was able to take that and reconstruct it with the pieces we found and worked with.”
The new cornice now atop the Van Antwerp building weighs about a tenth of the former version and features color blast lights synchronized to other RSA buildings in the state. Thus at Christmas they’re green and red but can change to pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month.
The building is virtually 100 percent occupied, Bassett says. A branch of BBVA Compass Bank occupies the coveted ground floor space. The original brass features of the first floor, including the chandeliers and Dauphin Room decorative railings, were restored, in addition to the plaster walls, ceiling details and the marble columns in the lobby area.
As for the angel from Montgomery, RSA was one of the few entities that would have been willing to undertake the renovation on a building smaller than the typical downtown megaplex. “It’s a credit to David Bronner, ” says Bill Bowman, vice president of Doster. “Thank goodness that he did this. It was one of the first skyscrapers in Alabama, you couldn’t tear it down. What he did is going to end up helping the entire downtown scene.”
Elizabeth Van Antwerp, who now works with Birkshaw Building Conservation, believes her pharmacist grandfather, Garrett Van Antwerp, would be thrilled with the work.
“It is amazing, glorious. They’ve done a beautiful adaptation of the use of the space, taken into consideration the historic landmark and how much it means to the city. They’ve paid attention to every detail. I think my grandfather would love it.”
Dave Helms is copy editor for Business Alabama.
Text by Dave Helms