When last we left Beverly Farrington in her renovation journey—the 19th-century “house on Gates” in Huntsville, Alabama—she was about to take her first look inside the storied structure. Follow along as she recounts her initial impressions, what captured her heart, and the hurdles she faced in bringing her renovation dreams to life.
By Beverly Farrington
I was smitten the moment I walked through the front door. Natural light flooded in through the staircase windows above, casting magical shadows into the grand hall below. As I turned in the entryway, I could see the bright golden cross shining from high atop the steeple of my church, Nativity Episcopal. It aligned perfectly with the front door—it was amazing. There were lots of windows everywhere, all huge and impressive. Good lighting has always been one of the essential elements I strive to achieve for my clients, and this house had it naturally in spades.
The house was solid and neat, with high ceilings (all a little over 11 feet) and large, airy, beautifully proportioned rooms. The details were simple and elegant; the main rooms all had floor-to-ceiling decorative panels with clipped corners that lent an Art Deco feel. Many of the small chandeliers scattered throughout the house were also of Art Deco influence. This popular style was prevalent in many home interiors in the 1920s, when the house had last been remodeled and updated. The mantels in both the living room and dining room were of a different period—they were of the Federal style and therefore may have been original to the 1934 addition.
The kitchen reminded me of my grandmother’s on her farm, very simple, with a place for a stove, a place for a refrigerator and a work table. There was only one small built-in cabinet, just large enough to hold a kitchen sink.
The house had three bathrooms, which sounds nice, but all were outdated. The bathroom on the main floor was constructed in the 1920s and, I’m sure, was the first indoor bath to be incorporated into the house. It was really just an appendage that protruded from the rear of the original 1818 center stairway. The bathroom tiles were beautiful, handmade in a wonderful shade of moss green with a Majolica feel about them. A large oval pedestal sink with a fluted column base was attached to the back wall, while the other three sides floated in the room. Upstairs were two very straightforward baths, one built in a former stairwell, the other built into the eave of the roof. The latter was so very cramped that it looked to be a 1950s afterthought.
I could see immediately that, though the kitchen and baths were very charming, all of them would have to be gutted and redone. It wasn’t just their placement; they were no longer functional for today’s living standards. The 1920s renovation may have been done for the same reasons—since the home had been built in 1818, it’s likely that nothing was wired properly and there was no indoor plumbing. I guess it’s appropriate every 100 years to think about a big remodel.
The house had been leased as an office for the 20 years before I first toured it, so the electrical components looked new. The problem was that all the wires ran in conduits attached to the face of plaster walls. Each room had one center light, electrified with the old knob-and-tube wiring, which couldn’t be good. And as I would later find out, all the new breaker boxes were wired into a hidden electrical panel with fuses, circa 1920s. The air conditioning seemed to work—that was a plus.
Yet despite all its negatives, there was just something about the house. It felt special. The tall and gracious rooms were warm, and you could feel their sense of place in time. The natural light was amazing.
It was a keeper, and I wanted my husband, Danny, to see it and for us to explore the possibilities. I knew that this fine historical house could once again become a residence, its rooms filled with love and laughter that only a family could bring.
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.
I soon made my application for review—I was willing to take the risks to bring this property back to life. I hoped the commission would see that this would be a win-win for all parties and would allow the addition and exterior changes to the rear. Frank designed the garage addition to flow gracefully into the existing structure. In some ways it looked as though it had always been there. I was hoping the commission would think the same.
There was another issue that needed to be addressed: the removal of a 1920s vent stack near the back of the house. It was a tall structure that originated in the basement boiler room and rose high above the roofline. While its original purpose was to vent steam, it was no longer in use. Unfortunately, it was situated right in the middle of the new kitchen and was problematic for our design. So, in addition to the removal of the old single-car garage and the construction of a new garage, we were asking for the removal of the chimney stack. And we had a few doors and windows on the rear and side of the house that needed to be modified as well.
When the time came for our review, I was very nervous. Frank and Glenn were both there to present, and many of our new neighbors had come to support us. It’s amazing what a humbling experience it is to go before a group that holds such a large decision about your personal ventures in their hands.
In the end, the commission would not allow us to remove the old garage, as they considered it a supporting structure. Through research I had learned that such a structure could be moved and still be classified as supporting, and we struck a deal that allowed us to reposition the old garage on the property.
They also would not allow the steam chimney to be removed from the rooftop, though they did grant permission to add the garage and make some of the window and door modifications. Later, in another review they allowed us to add a new exterior fireplace and chimney.
All in all, it was a compromise. A few days after the review, I came to terms with the commission’s rulings. I got the one item I really wanted most, the new garage, and I thought I could live with the other decisions, even though moving the garage and building a steel structure to keep the external chimney would be costly.
As soon as the house was officially ours, my goal became keeping as much of its history as possible while creating a new and wonderful place for Danny and me to call home.
See the full House on Gates series here.