By Tom McGehee, Museum Director of the Bellingrath Home
After Walter and Bessie Bellingrath’s 1906 marriage, city directories show that they resided in a house at 108 St. Anthony Street. No photographs have been located of that house, but city fire maps reveal a modest structure.
In a letter to his Mother dated September 17, 1911, Mr. Bellingrath mentioned that he had purchased a new house “in the heart of what is considered the best neighborhood in Mobile.” The house, located on Ann Street, was about 3 1/2 years old, he told her, describing it as “one of the most unique and best built houses in Mobile.” “We hope to move in between now and October 1,” he wrote.
A 1908 newspaper account described the new house as “a large, two-story house of Colonial design with lofty ceilings and large galleries. There are ten rooms in the house, which are finished in white enamel, with hardwood floors. In all its details it is one of the best finished and most completed residences in the neighborhood.”
The house was designed by well-known architect George B. Rogers for Henry Tacon, retired secretary and treasurer of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.
Bessie Bellingrath immediately began improving the gardens around her new home. The property backed up to a vacant lot, which Mr. Bellingrath purchased when his wife’s azalea purchases exceeded the size of the original property. A driveway extended back to connect with Bradford Avenue.
The Bellingraths always enjoyed sharing their gardens with other flower lovers. When the couple let it be known that anyone was welcome to drive through and admire the blooms, Ann Street was often the scene of traffic jams. In 1929, this became the first private garden on the newly formed Azalea Trail.
The original carriage house was enlarged for a garage in the 1920s by Rogers. Its second floor held space for servants but was never used for that purpose. Both Elsie Bellingrath Stebbins and Ernest Edgar Jr. recalled the rooms as filled to the brim with antiques collected by their Aunt Bessie.
When the Bellingraths opened Bellingrath Gardens to the public in 1932, they used the rustic Lodge on Fowl River as a part-time home. In 1934, when the couple opened the Gardens year-round, they decided that their living quarters there were insufficient and hired Rogers to design the Bellingrath Home. Life in the Lodge meant that everyone had to walk to a separate building for meals, which probably was a big factor in the Bellingraths’ decision.
When the Bellingraths moved into their new Home at the Gardens in 1936, 60 South Ann Street earned the nickname of “The Infirmary,” with the idea that it would be used for that purpose if either Mr. or Mrs. Bellingrath became ill and needed to be closer to a doctor. This was an era when few people used a hospital, relying instead of house-calling physicians and private nurses when needed. The Ann Street home was still staffed with servants, including a maid who came in daily to iron the mountains of fine linens in use down at the river.
The Ann Street house was still in the possession of the Bellingrath Morse Foundation when Walter Bellingrath died in August 1955. City directories show the property as “vacant” until 1958, when it was listed as “Educational Building, Greek Orthodox Church.” Mrs. Bellingrath’s nephew, Harry Sackhoff, was then listed as living next door at No. 58.
The new Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church arrived on the block by 1962 and used the Bellingraths’ former home for an educational building for nearly a decade before new construction replaced the home that the young Bellingraths had so excitedly moved into decades earlier.
The garage survived. Efforts to demolish it were denied, because of its historic significance, and it was eventually moved to become a two-unit condominium at 1116 Government Street. The building now holds two luxurious apartments. It is a nice addition to Government Street, and its transformation would undoubtedly please both the Bellingraths and Rogers.