RESTORING THE PAST, BUILDING THE FUTURE
In the January 2013 issue of Mobile Bay Magazine, architectural historian John Sledge placed the deteriorating Barton Academy at the top of his “Restoration Wish List.” Sledge calls Barton “a landmark example of Greek Revival style with its columned rotunda floating among the live oak tops, soaring ionic porticoes … and distinguished cast-iron fence.” It’s easy to see why Barton should top anyone’s preservation wish list in Mobile. Beyond its nationally recognized architectural significance, Barton is Alabama’s oldest public school and an enduring symbol of the high importance our city has placed on education. Constructing such a monumental building in 1836 for a city of only 13,000 people showed bold confidence and vision for growth.
Led by Willoughby Barton, Mobile County established the state’s first public school system in 1826 and began building Barton Academy in 1836. For the design, the school commission selected architects James Gallier Sr. and brothers James and Charles Dakin, major figures in the Greek Revival movement who began their careers in New York and made their mark creating some of the best-known buildings in New Orleans. Barton Academy and Government Street Presbyterian Church, a National Historic Landmark, are Mobile’s last surviving examples of works by Gallier and Dakin.
Although the school commission bought an entire block on Government Street in 1830, problems raising funds delayed construction of a school. Eventually the state legislature allowed the commission to raise funds through a lottery. By early 1836 they had $50,000 in lottery funds, a $15,000 municipal loan and private donations, including a large gift from Henry Hitchcock, a local millionaire and major funder of nearby Government Street Presbyterian.
After finishing touches were completed in 1839, students began attending Barton – but for a tuition fee. A large construction debt prevented the commission from offering full public education, and classrooms were rented to a number of private and denominational schools, with costs supplemented by the school commission. After more than a decade, a new board of commissioners reorganized the school system and reopened Barton as a public school in November 1852. This system became the model for Alabama’s public school system.
Aside from being closed during the Civil War, Barton continued to be Mobile County’s public high school until Murphy High School opened in 1926. Barton served as an elementary and middle school until the 1960s when it was converted to the central office for the Mobile County Public School System. Barton was expanded with wings to the east and west in 1899 and with an additional building – J.D. Yerby School – along Conti Street in 1904. Over the years Barton’s interior has been dramatically altered, divided and rebuilt. Only the interior of the rotunda under the dome remains in its original condition and configuration.
The building was surveyed by the Historic American Buildings Survey several times from 1934 to 1937, resulting in a large collection of photos and drawings maintained at the Library of Congress. Barton was added to the National Register of Historic Places in February 1970.
Vacant since 2007, Barton has twice landed on Alabama’s list of “Places in Peril.” The Barton Academy Foundation has launched a campaign to renovate the building for use as a world studies school and prepare this landmark for a dramatic new role in the 21st century.
1826 – Led by Willoughby Barton, a state legislator from Mobile, the state establishes the Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, the state’s first public school system.
1830 – School commission buys an entire city block on Government Street as a site for its future school.
1830-1836 – The commissioners have difficulty raising money to construct the school. Eventually the state legislature allows the commission to raise funds through a lottery. By early 1836, they have $50,000 in lottery funds, a $15,000 municipal loan and some private donations, including a large private donation from local millionaire Henry Hitchcock.
1836 – James Gallier Sr. and brothers James and Charles Dakin are selected as the architects. They work simultaneously on Barton and Government Street Presbyterian Church.
1836 – Construction begins on Barton.
1839 – Barton is ready for students, but the school commission has accumulated too much debt to offer free classes. Classrooms are rented to private and denominational schools, with the school commission contributing support funds.
1852 – After more than a decade on a semi-public plan, the commission reorganizes and reopens Barton as a true public school. Barton becomes the model for Alabama’s public school system.
1860 – Barton is closed during the Civil War.
1865 – Barton reopens after the war.
1899 – Barton is expanded with wings on the east and west sides.
1904 – J.D. Yerby School is added to the north side of Barton campus.
1926 – Murphy High School opens and Barton becomes a middle school.
1934-1937 – Barton is surveyed by the Historic American Buildings Survey, resulting in a large collection of photos and drawings maintained at the Library of Congress.
1960s – Barton closes to classes and becomes the central office for Mobile County Public School System.
1970 – Barton is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
2005 – Barton Academy is named to Alabama’s "Places in Peril" by the Alabama Historical Commission and the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation.
2007 – The school board relocates its central office to West Mobile.
2009 – Barton Academy is re-named to Alabama’s “Places in Peril.”
2009 – Local preservation groups – including Mobile Historic Development Commission, Historic Mobile Preservation Society and Downtown Mobile Alliance – rally support for preserving Barton and form the Barton Academy Historic Preservation and Restoration Committee to explore a new life for the historic complex.
2012 – Barton Academy Foundation is incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The foundation’s mission is to assist the school system in raising awareness and funds to create Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies as an innovative educational institution and an engine for growing Mobile’s economy.
2013 – The Mobile County Public Schools allocates $3.5 million from its $100 million construction bond for repairs to the exterior of Barton Academy.
2015 – Mobile County Public Schools completes a $4.2 million exterior
renovation – renewing every surface from the fence to the top of the dome.
2020 – Barton Foundation reaches $14 million goal to renovate Barton interior and construction begins.