The next day I called Frank Nola, my dear friend and a renowned architect, to come give me his opinion. He saw the home’s potential just as I had, and soon was sketching the changes required to create a floor plan that would allow for a master bedroom suite with bath and closets on the main level, as well as a modern, centrally located kitchen.
In reconfiguring the house, we first established the relationship of rooms with their interconnective paths. It was important to me that each room flow seamlessly from one to another. Frank and I played around with several ideas and soon found a thoughtful and workable plan. I then solicited the advice of another friend and amazing contractor, Glenn Cope. He thought our ideas were doable. We knew costs would be high, but also that if we worked hard, we could keep it manageable. And of course all that scared me. Besides a great plan, now the only other thing I needed was money.
I went ahead and took out an option on the property. But the problem I hadn’t solved was the one-car detached garage, which had sat right in the middle of the back yard since the 1940s, built by the previous owner to house his Bentley. It was cute, but terribly positioned; it was badly in need of repair, full of rotten wood; and its position made it impossible to add a proper garage at the rear of the house. Prominent Huntsville historical architect Harvey Jones wrote about it in a historic journal on Twickenham: “The house has a little 1920s classical garage in the back that is charming, even though it enshrines the automobile in its own tiny Roman Tuscan plastered temple.”
I was worried. If Harvey thought it was special, the Huntsville Historical Preservation Commission most likely would too. It’s hard to challenge a dead man. Their decision on whether I could or could not remove it would ultimately determine if I bought the house—I could not make such a big investment in time or in money without being able to add an updated garage. Our next step would be to go before the commission for the approval of these exterior modifications.
The Historical Preservation Commission has been a great leader in helping to build a vibrant future for Huntsville by preserving its past, but it has a reputation of being strict and difficult. I was scared.
The house on Gates is historically significant—it was one earliest homes built in Huntsville, owned first by local merchant Phillip A. Foote. It was purchased in 1827 by John Brahan, who was the president of Huntsville from 1819 to 1821 and has a recreational park named after him in town. In 1833, Brahan sold the home to Dr. Edmund Irby; during Irby’s ownership, the home was renovated in the Greek Revival style and was essentially completed in 1834. And finally, Morris Bernstein, one of the first two Jewish settlers in the Huntsville area, bought the House on Gates. His family was to own it for 130 years, and it was they who led the 1920s remodel: Clapboard siding and brick walls were replaced with stucco and a gambrel roof was added, changing the Greek Revival profile to the Dutch Colonial Revival style in vogue at the time.