Retrospect: The opening of Mobile’s Waterman Building, 1950

In March 1950, Mobilians were treated to a top-to-bottom tour of the Waterman Steamship Corp.’s new headquarters.

Mobile in 1950s
This undated photo shows the Waterman Steamship building, left, from St. Joseph Street in Mobile. Photo courtesy of the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

In March 1950, Mobilians were treated to a top-to-bottom tour of the Waterman Steamship Corp.’s new headquarters. Founded in 1919 with a single vessel, within three decades it became one of the nation’s largest shipping companies, bringing sorely needed jobs and federal investment into pre-World War II Mobile. In 1950, Waterman had more than two dozen branch offices throughout the United States. Its new headquarters was a bold statement on the health and stature of the company.

By the end of World War I, many Mobile businessmen and boosters were convinced the city’s future depended greatly upon improved docks and waterfront ship-repair facilities. Years of neglect and haphazard investments had left Mobile unprepared for the wartime manufacturing demands of the country. While several local companies received federal contracts for ships, the condition of the available facilities slowed the effort and by 1919 Alabama’s port city had contributed but a single vessel to the fight. 

New Orleans native John B. Waterman formed the company in his name through a partnership with timberman C. W. Hempstead and Walter Bellingrath, the prosperous south Alabama Coca-Cola bottler who had invested heavily in the shipping industry. Within a decade, Waterman had more than a dozen vessels involved in shipping goods and materials between the southern seaboard and Puerto Rico. In 1931, John B. Waterman secured a lucrative mail contract with the U.S. Postal Service, prompting a retrofit of
his company’s fleet that provided essential jobs and capital for
Depression-era Mobile. 

At the onset of World War II, the Waterman Steamship fleet numbered 125 vessels and employed nearly 900 people. While German submarines disrupted European shipping lanes, Waterman’s Latin American trade routes prospered. The company acted as a corporate agent of the War Shipping Administration, responsible for transporting vital material for the fight, and its subsidiary Gulf Shipbuilding Corp., purchased in 1937 from the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co., built and repaired vessels for the U.S. Navy. 

By 1946, Waterman Steamship was among the largest shipping companies in America. That year, executives made the decision to construct a new corporate headquarters befitting its post-war stature. Towering more than 230 feet above Alabama’s port city, the Waterman Building cost $3 million, equivalent to nearly $34 million today. It housed 350 full-time employees upon its completion in December 1948.  

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Designed in the Art Deco style, it ranked among the region’s most modern and visually intriguing office buildings. A Waterman press release referred to the headquarters as “both unusual and pleasing.” In style and color, it made a dramatic entrance upon the skyline of Alabama’s oldest city. The exterior of the two-story ground floor was faced in a highly polished granite. The remaining portions were a mixture of ruddy brick to the west and lighter-colored architectural stone on the other sides. Tall vertical sunshades contributed to the building’s otherworldly appearance. 

On March 3 and 4, 1950, a few weeks after the end of the city’s annual Carnival season, executives at the company threw open their doors and held a “public inspection” of the 18-floor facility. Hundreds of Mobilians braved rain and cold to tour nearly every inch of the 100,000-square-foot interior, which was adorned with flowers and filled with Waterman employees ready to answer questions. 

Inside were numerous technological marvels of the emerging modern age, including four “noiseless” elevators and a state-of-the-art photography lab. An army of switchboard operators in the second-floor telephone exchange oversaw more than 200 extensions and could enable in an instant a four-way conference call among Waterman employees from anywhere in the country.  

From their 15th- and 16th-floor offices, Waterman’s executives enjoyed a panoramic view of the Mobile River and an open-air terrace ornamented with azaleas. Still, not even the view from the top could quite compare with the building’s impressive lobby, which the company intended to be “monumental in character…to reflect the business in which Waterman is engaged and the effect of that business on the people.” None could say that the colorful and arresting interior could have done anything less. It was decorated with largescale fresco murals that took New Orleans artist Conrad Albrizio 13 months to complete. 

The jewel in the new building’s crown was the Waterman Globe, a 12-foot orb rotating quietly, effortlessly, in the center of the lobby. Built by the Rand McNally Corp. at a cost exceeding $40,000, it made a complete rotation every two minutes and was scaled at 1 inch for every 55 miles. A brass railing encircled the globe, allowing visitors to peer down into the sub-floor mechanism that made the world turn. Mobile featured prominently on the globe, the only place shown out of proportion. A flag planted in the Pacific Ocean bore the insignia of the Waterman Steamship Corp.

After attending the opening, a local journalist predicted the Waterman Building, particularly it’s colorful and unique lobby, would quickly be added to “the list of things and places which ‘must’ be seen by visitors to Mobile — and of which Mobilians can boast.” Time bore the prediction to be true. For years, the steamship company employed two full-time guides to greet visitors young and old who came to see the lobby murals and the globe.

In 1955, when McLean Securities Corp. purchased Waterman Steamship for $42 million, it had grown from a single vessel into the largest privately-owned shipping company in the world. The Waterman Building was sold to a bank in 1973. Waterman departed Mobile in 1989 and is now a part of Seacor Marine.

The new owners of the Art Deco building redesigned the lobby into a teller’s office, dismantled the popular globe and placed it into storage. After the absence of nearly a generation, it returned to public view in 1996 as a permanent feature in the lobby of the Mitchell Center on the campus of the University of South Alabama. The transient globe and the Waterman Building are a reminder of Mobile’s deep ties to the shipping industry.   

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka. This story first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Business Alabama.

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