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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.
Nativity Episcopal Steeple
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The house had three bathrooms, which sounds nice, but all were outdated.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.
Kitchen and Bathroom
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.
Exterior Side View
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.
Elevation of Side Exterior of New House on Gates
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.
Danny and Beverly
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.
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In collaboration with Southern Lady, Beverly Farrington has given us a look into the past and is telling the story of how she and her husband, Danny Alm have acquired The House on Gates. Make sure to subscribe to this blog so you can follow this incredible renovation diary!
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.
303 Williams Ave.
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.
1 Cruse Alley
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.
Beverly in front of the barn
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.
603 Adams Street
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.
5 Cruse Alley
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.
310 Green Street
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.
The House on Gates
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.
The House on Gates from the back
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.
Map of Huntsville, Alabama in 1871
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.
Image Credit: 1) Hickory Chair 2) Julie Neill 3) Mr Brown Home 4) Kindel Furniture 5) Shadow Catchers Art
– Transcript –
1) In your own words describe your unique style and creative aesthetic?
I believe in the blending of traditional Southern style with modern sensibilities to create timeless interiors. Focusing on interior architecture, to ground our designs.
2) When starting a new project, what is your creative process?
The process of research and reflection helps me begin a design. By addressing the setting of each project, reflecting on the architectural style of the home and client’s intent, I begin the design process.
3) Out of the creative people you have worked with, who is it that you respect and admire the most?
Working with so many creative individuals every day, to select one individual would be impossible. Our seamstress, tile setters, upholsterer, cabinet makers and wood workers, faux finishers, our architects and landscape designers, and of course my staff all bring their special gifts to the table. I have learned so much collectively from each of them, and they have helped make me the designer I am today.
4) When looking for inspiration is there a particular thing you do to get inspired?
Often items from our clients’ collections inspire a design, making the space a reflection of their personality. It’s these feelings we coax from our design that make a house a home.
5) What has brought you to this point in your career? And what is your advice for people looking to follow in your footsteps?
When I began my firm, Accents of the South, over 30 years ago, it was the first of its kind to blend interior design with architecture. Through hard work, creativity and good client relationships, my interior design business has flourished.
Spring is here, and the summer months are just around the corner. Activities have already begun to shift outdoors, and soon we will all be looking for a nice place to escape the heat. A porch swing is a great addition to any outdoor space or sun room, where you can spend time enjoying conversation with family and friends or just relaxing on your own. There are a lot of unique swing options, and no matter the style you choose there is a perfect one for you.
When designing a porch swing, it is important to know who will be using it. We’ve had several opportunities to design custom porch swings for clients of all ages. Each design presents us with different challenges and goals. For example a family with small children will want a swing with little to no movement and have enough room for the whole family. A married couple, on the other hand, might want a fully upholstered swing just big enough for two.
Location is a key factor in the design of a custom swing. Whether the swing is going outside on a covered porch or inside a sun room, it will affect the type of materials you use. The options are endless: wood, which has many options within itself, metal, or fully upholstered. Exposure to sun and rain will also determine which material will work best for your space.
Comfort of course is the main driving force behind the design, and proportions of the swing are vital to achieving this goal. The seat depth and back height as well as the angle of the back are crucial decisions that will directly relate to the overall comfort of the swing. Remember the seat height can be adjusted during the installation process.
The final step of the design is the overall aesthetic. Fabrics and finish materials are all selected based on the space and your style. This is the fun part where you can be as creative as you want. Typically we hang our swings with rope, and lucky for us we have someone who is great at tying intricate knots. Of course chain can be used instead of rope to hang your swing, and this will give it a completely different look.
Now relax and swing the day idly away during those hot days of summer!
I’m so excited to enter Traditional Home’s “New Trads” design contest. Traditional Home has always been one of my favorite publications, and to showcase one of our designs in their magazine would be a wonderful honor. When entering this contest I had to answer important questions about my design style and experience, which gave me the opportunity to look back at past designs and think about what sets them apart.
I would like to share all of my responses with you and encourage you to vote for us! Voting is going on through March 15th at midnight, and you can vote daily as well as share with your friends on Facebook! Please follow the link below to vote. We’d love to have your vote!
Blending traditional Southern style, with details that are thoughtfully designed and cleanly executed is what authenticates my designs. I believe in creating homes that are a reflection of my clients’ sense of place, and through the process of research and study, inspiration for each project is found.
Today especially after the down turn in the market, I am designing homes smaller and more intimate in scale. With this in mind, I choose to focus on the interior architecture of the space. Sustaining the same respect for interior architecture that is bestowed upon the exterior design is important. This respect allows me to form a solid foundation in my designs through the use of moldings, ceiling details and cabinetry. It helps me to create beautiful, authentic and purposeful spaces. Where great design, meaningful furnishings, color and texture coax emotion as one walks through the door.
My Proudest Accomplishment:
Establishing one of the South’s leading interior design firms through the creation of timeless thoughtful interiors for my clients fills me with pride. I’ve also had the privilege of being featured in publications such as: Traditional Home, Southern Living, The Washington Post and Southern Lady. My firm has won several ASID design awards including Platinum.
Giving Back to the Community:
Helping my community and beyond is just as rewarding as finishing a design project. Currently with Auburn University, I serve on their Interior Design Advisory Board, giving faculty and students advice and feedback and on the Executive Board for Women’s Philanthropy as Scholarship Chair. I also am the Trust and Endowment Chair for the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, past Chairman for the Huntsville Museum of Art Gala and Foundation Board Member, and an active ASID member.
My Design Background:
After receiving my Bachelor’s degree, over 30 years ago, in Interior Design from Auburn University, I founded Accents of the South; one of the first of its kind in the South. From my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, my firm and I design custom high-end residences throughout the Southeast and beyond. Integrating interior design with architecture, I design spaces that are both functional and masterfully detailed, while remaining loyal to the Southern integrity in design. It is my goal to maintain the ideals of the quote from Willie Morris, “ In the South, perhaps more than any other region, we go back to our home in dreams and memories, hoping it remains what it was on lazy, still summer’s day twenty years ago”.