Historic Brookley Field

From Private Field to Industrial Center

Fort Whiting National Guard Armory

Fort Whiting, often just a quiet military installation not far from the water’s edge, has had its history go unnoticed. Even in spite of the many events that are often hosted in its stylish interior, from Mardi Gras balls to career fairs, it garners little praise. Beyond festivities and other events, it serves the city as a haven during emergencies and a hub for aid operations. Yet, for decades, it has continued to silently serve without recognition. Such dedicated service underscores Fort Whiting’s distinguished place in the historic fabric of Alabama.

In 1936, the Works Progress Administration was hard at work in Alabama, creating jobs for those out of work due to the harsh economic conditions. These efforts saw large work projects building infrastructure, schools, and, importantly for many job-seekers, military industry across Alabama, which led to non-agricultural employment in Alabama rising by 26.3 percent.[1] It was through these efforts that the WPA announced the planned construction of a National Guard armory in Mobile.[2] This was part of a large building program in Alabama that saw the construction of a great many structures, including 30 National Guard armories, of which Fort Whiting was the second largest.[3] However, Mobile was not a surefire selection for an armory location. The First National Bank of Mobile’s Highlights of 75 years in Mobile, tells how a WPA official in Birmingham was strict with the armory projects and would not allow the Mobile armory project to proceed unless he could have a personal meeting with the architect, Fred W. Clarke. Unfortunately, he gave the Mobile delegation only four hours to bring Mr. Clarke from Mobile to Birmingham. The Mobile delegation and the Alabama National Guard then devised a plan to transport Mr. Clarke on a National Guard plane, but he could not do so as a civilian, so he needed to be enlisted in the National Guard, with all due formalities done as quickly as possible. The Mobile delegation sped from Montgomery to Birmingham, and Mr. Clarke flew over from Mobile, making it there just in time to make their case to the WPA official and succeeding in having the funding released for the project.[4] Once the battle for funding was concluded, construction was quick for the armory, and its first phase was completed in August 1936, with then-Governor Graves attending the dedication.[5] Initially, the then-unnamed armory was not planned to include the auditorium and stage, however, some, like Alabama National Guard Major Jimmie Alvarez, worked to see such an addition made to the armory. [6]  Soon after the armory was dedicated, there was a further announcement for new funding to make additions, such as the much sought-after auditorium and stage that the structure possesses today.[7] In January 1939, Governor Graves announced the names of the armories constructed in the WPA program, which is when the Mobile armory was named Fort Whiting, after the Confederate Army Captain Julian Wythe Whiting.[8] With “Fort” likely derived from War Department General Order Number 79 of 1878, which set the standard for the army that posts permanently occupied by soldiers were called “Forts” and temporarily occupied posts were called “Camps.”

Fort Whiting quickly made its place in the community by hosting public events, with fraternity dances and charity concerts being advertised in papers of that year.[9] At this point, it appears that Fort Whiting was not yet affiliated with Brookley Field. However, by 1941, newspapers began to link the two entities with an article showing Fort Whiting as a place for civilians to visit and interact with Brookley-based soldiers during dances.[10] Indeed, Brookley Field was presented with a portrait of Captain Brookley, whom the installation is named after, by his father, and the portrait was hung in the Fort Whiting auditorium.[11] Of particular interest in these wartime newspapers is that calls for women workers and mechanics for Brookley Field began to be posted in 1942, and the place for which these women are to begin their journey into the defense industry is Fort Whiting.[12]

During the Cold War cost cuts, it survived as its own installation when Brookley Airbase was deactivated and transferred to the city in the 1960s, Fort Whiting is owned by the Alabama National Guard rather than the Air Force and so was not on the chopping block.In the 2000s, the armory complex saw expansion with new structures and storage yards added to the area and repairs made to Fort Whiting armory.[13] The armory has, throughout these years, seen continued use not only as a military site, but also as a space to host events for the public and as shelter during storms.

[1] Matthew L. Downs, Transforming the South Federal Development in the Tennessee Valley, 1915-1960, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014) Chapter 4, Ebook

[2] “Approval is given to Montgomery Armory,” The Birmingham Post, January 3, 1936, page 5; While the title of the article states “Montgomery Armory” the content of the article suggests it is the Mobile Armory.

[3] “30 Armories for state complete,” The Birmingham News, August 26, 1938, Page 23

[4] First National Bank of Mobile, Highlights of 75 Years in Mobile, (Mobile: First National Bank of Mobile,1940) P.113-114

[5] “Graves to attend armory dedication,” The Montgomery Advertiser, August 13, 1936, Page 5

[6] “Alvarez seeking grapes,” The Montgomery Advertiser, July 29, 1936, Page 3

[7] “Alabama is granted more WPA projects,” The Birmingham Post, February 12, 1937, page 2

[8] Billy Hinson, “Interwar Years,” in Mobile: The New History of Alabama’s First City, ed. Michael V. R. Thomason, (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2001), P.195

[9] “Miss Mary Gaston Attends Mobile Frat Dance,” Fairhope Courier, January 5, 1939, Page 5

[10] “Women’s Defense Officers At Work,” Fairhope Courier, October 16, 1941, Page 1

[11] “Brookley Field Notes,” The Mobile Journal, August 03, 1945, Page 1

[12] “Women, Girls Wanted As Airplane Mechanics,” The Lowndes Signal, November 13, 1942, Page 8

[13] “Phase II Construction Additions to Fort Whiting Mobile, Alabama” The Montgomery Advertiser, July 25, 2005, Page 18