Welcome to Historic Oakleigh. Before this home was ever built, the land here was a large grove of oak trees. That’s the origin of the name Oakleigh- “leigh” is an old English word for meadow- so the property and house were names for the meadow of oak trees that once flourished here. Some of the oak trees remaining on the property today are about 200-300 years old. They would have been here when the home was first constructed.
This property was first purchased by a man named James W. Roper as part of a Spanish Land grant. He purchased it in 1833, and that’s when construction began on the Greek-Revival home. Roper designed the home himself and you can see the Greek revival style represented in the four columns on the façade and the triangular pediment at the top of the home. The home was built to resemble a Greek temple. Some of these details are reflected on the interior of the home as well. This style was very common at the time and there are many other examples of Greek Revival architecture throughout Mobile. When Roper first built Oakleigh, he built the home as a raised basement home. This means that only the second floor of the home was used as a living quarters. The ground floor was left open to allow for more airflow. As wind blows underneath a raised basement, it cools down the home from underneath.
Roper moved here to Mobile possibly as early as 1825 from Virginia. He was a businessman and built a name for himself here. Roper was in the dry goods business, which means he sold plants and seeds from his garden in his store downtown. On the right side of the home is what is now the Sunken Garden, but in 1833, that area was a plentiful clay pit. Bricks produced from that clay were used in the construction of the home as well as several buildings downtown. He and his family moved into the home in 1837, when construction was completed.
A common misconception about the home is that it was once a plantation. However, that is not true. There were never cash crops grown here on the property, just the small garden. Although, Oakleigh was not a plantation, there were slaves here on the property. The enslaved peoples were skilled laborers and domestic workers. Originally slave quarters were located off the south side of the building, with the original kitchen house. Both building have since burned down and that piece of the property is not associated with the Historic Mobile Preservation Society.
The home has been owned by a total of five families. Each family who lived in the home made their own adjustments. The downstairs was fully enclosed around the 1920s by the Cole Family, the third family to own the home. However, each family made their own additions, such as staircases, lattice walls, and then air conditioning system.
Oakleigh was inhabited from 1837 to 1955, then in 1955, Mrs. Susan Anne Onstad sold the house to the City of Mobile. When she sold the home, she sold it to the city with the stipulation that the home be made a museum. The home is still operated as a museum and run by the Historic Mobile Preservation Society. To learn more about the property, tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm. Tours go off on the hour, the last tour leaves at 3pm. Please contact us at 251-432-1281 for more information.