By Beverly Farrington
When we at Southern Lady learned that designer Beverly Farrington of Accents of the South had bought an 1818 dwelling in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama — intending to restore it to its bygone glory and bring it to life with her personal style — we invited her to share the process with us and our readers. She graciously agreed, and this piece is the first installment in a series that will take us through her ongoing renovation of the “house on Gates,” as she calls it. Thank you, Beverly, for allowing us to join you on this journey!
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.
Once I got settled into the barn, I soon developed a closer relationship with a college friend and fellow designer, who became my running buddy. He was always dragging me to some beautiful party at one of the elegant and stately homes that lined Adams and Franklin Streets. He was a social light; his charm and gaiety won over the hearts of Huntsville’s society. I enjoyed the opportunity just to absorb my surroundings, to feel the details of the grand rooms juxtaposed with the quaintness of the back kitchens and service areas with their low ceilings and approachable furnishings. This technique of incorporating a grand or classic element with simplistic furnishings is a signature in my designs today.
I also loved how all the details of these parties seemed effortless and gracefully executed: the entry tables outfitted with exquisite flower arrangements cut from the garden and the buffet tables laid with sparkling silver trays and chafing dishes. All these early experiences helped to shape my approach to design and entertaining.
I became best friends with my neighbor. She was much older than I; I could talk to her like a friend and yet I respected her advice and wisdom like a mother. She was a beautiful entertainer, very thoughtful about whom she invited to her parties. Her guest list always consisted of young and old, rich and not, socially connected and new to town. Her parties were never about the food but about the interconnection of people and stimulating, insightful conversation. It was at one of her parties that I accepted my first husband’s proposal of marriage. And it was through him that I first saw and experienced the world — all its culture, its food, its architecture.
A New Chapter
Eventually my neighbor left Cruse Alley and so did I. I got married and moved with my husband to a house outside the historic district, and she moved into her mother’s house on Green Street. It was there, at her mother’s house, that I first really studied the house on Gates. It sat across the side street from her front porch.
The House on Gates, a handsome Dutch Colonial, was solid white stucco with an asphalt-shingled roof had been put on in the 1920s, the last time the house had been completely remodeled. Over the years, the old-world red color of the roof shingles had faded to a luscious shade of silver-pink. The main body of the 1818 house had a gambrel roof that was put on during the renovation; the side wings, part of an 1834 addition, had a flat roof hidden behind a short parapet wall. Strong front columns stood about 12 feet tall and 24 inches round and had Doric-style capitals. The house had large hand-blown glass window panes, six over six, and a charming pergola off the side. I thought it was one of the best-looking houses in Twickenham.
Many years passed. I worked hard at my profession and grew my business as well as my love of beautiful things and ability to create them. My style would develop to what I think is best expressed as Southern transitional. I learned how to deliberately orchestrate the dreams and desires of my clients into functional and beautifully crafted interiors. And through the process of translating their thoughts into three-dimensional spaces, I learned how to evoke an emotional response. I started to feel accomplished, but then things changed: my husband died.
It would take another eight years before I could put all the puzzle pieces of life back together again. It was now 2014, and my career was moving steadily upward. At a Christmas party, I met the man who would fill my life with love and joy again, my now-husband.
Shortly before we married, the house on Gates, the house that had drawn me in so long ago, came available. It had been owned by the same family for more than 100 years. Now, at the time my life was beginning anew, the house on Gates was also waiting patiently for renewal.
I kept finding myself drawn to this house and to the area of Twickenham, just as residents were drawn in some 200 years ago. Historians surmise that some of the founding fathers chose this name after a village in England. Twickenham, England was a place noted for its “cordial society, handsome houses, beautiful gardens and famous residents.” It was the home of the famed English poet Alexander Pope and many other scholars and celebrities of the time. In America, the name Twickenham was a byword among cultivated Virginians for learning creative talent and social polish. It was the embodiment of these 19th-century ideals that lead Leroy Pope, Thomas Bibb (both true Virginians), and other Huntsville founding fathers to choose this name for their new town. They felt it was synonymous with sophistication and announced specific and qualitative aims for a small American town.
Historian Eleanor Hutchins writes, “Now, as we all know, the founders of our Twickenham came here rich to make themselves richer. They bought large tracts of land, cleared them and planted cotton. Some of them were merchants or professional men as well. Their primary energies went into the building of their fortunes. But they had as their end the creation of a certain kind of life. They built their houses not mainly on their plantations but here close together, to make a town. And they named that town Twickenham.”
Today the cotton fields have metamorphosed into high-tech buildings for NASA, the Army, science, engineering, and technology. But the pursuits of many are still the same: to find prosperity as they embrace the culture and sophistication of all that downtown Huntsville has to offer, from its society, symphony, and theatre to its museums and landscape.
And so it was that one day after a friend of mine had looked at the house on Gates but decided she wasn’t interested, I thought, “Well, maybe I should just go take a look.” It surely couldn’t hurt, and as much as I had admired the exterior, I had never been inside.
Stay tuned for the next chapter — what I found so intriguing about the house on Gates and what almost put a stop to the entire project.