Not long after I graduated from college, I opened my own interior design firm after a stint working for a local furniture retailer. With hard work and a little financial help from my father, in a few months I got to the point where I could finally start looking for a place to live on my own.
A good friend of mine was getting married and moving out of a storybook cottage rental, and I snatched it up. It was on Cruse Alley, once a service road dotted with small wooden houses, in Twickenham, the historic district of downtown Huntsville, Alabama. The area’s significant residential structures date from 1814 and represent styles including Gothic, Eastlake, Queen Anne, Federal, and Classic Revival. My rental had originally been the barn for a large Greek Revival home that fronted the formidable Williams Street.
When I moved in, it was part of a much smaller parcel of land that sat next to a small Federal-style home owned by the editor of the local paper and his wife, a prominent figure in the community. When meetings for the symphony ball were held at their house, she would only allow the ladies to enter five minutes before the meeting time and never a minute late. She was all about control and proper etiquette. On meeting days I would see cars full of anxious ladies lined up on the street waiting for that magic window of time, most scared to do anything to upset her. I liked her and we got along, for I knew my place. She had already made that clear to me.
She was the one who gave me one of life’s big lessons on finance, the first month I lived in the barn. I moved in on the 6th of the month at her request, and I thought from thereafter, rent would be due on the 6th. A few days before my rent was due, I was sitting in my den thinking about how proud I was to have my money saved — it would be my first time ever to pay rent using money I had earned. Maybe, I thought, I’d even take her my rent a few days early just to show I was a good, responsible tenant. Well, it was at that very moment that I saw her outside my door. Cigarette perched magically in the corner of her lips, she howled and banged on the back door demanding her late rent. She had expected it on the 1st. She told me under no uncertain terms would she tolerate this kind of behavior, and though I tried to explain the misunderstanding, I suspected she never really believed me. The pride I had felt quickly faded.
It was then I learned that, in order to keep good business relationships, both parties must have a clear understanding about cost and the timeliness of payment — a lesson that I apply in my business to this day. In time I began to respect her and, I think, she did me.
The barn was painted weathered red and had a classic stable split door for the entrance. The interior was clad in whitewashed horizontal pine boards, with short windows mounted high on the wall in each corner and bookcases underneath. There was an old black cast-iron stove between them, and on the back wall was a large sliding barn door that let in beautiful light in the afternoon. The kitchen was to the side, where the original stalls had been, and it was outfitted with knotty pine cabinets and a ‘60s range. The tack room had been turned into the laundry and half bath.
Through some of the wallboards you could look up and see the stars at night. The upstairs hayloft had been converted into bedrooms, the only insulated part of the house and the only one that stayed warm on cold winter nights. And it was during those six years that I lived in the barn that I grew into an adult. It’s where my appreciation for classic architecture grew, where entertaining became a lifestyle, and where I had a lot of fun. I became enveloped in all that downtown had to offer in the ‘80s, and it was here that I fell in love with Twickenham.