Modern Revival

A house with good bones will always pass the test of time. While this one got a little tattered around the edges and weathered at the seams, the envelope was solid. It just took some homeowners with faith and a design team with vision to give it new life.

Built in the mid 1950s by Birmingham architect Nelson Smith (best known for designing St. Luke’s Episcopal Church), the home exhibited lines reminiscent of the modern aesthetic in vogue during that period. As years passed and mid-century modern gave way to suburban McMansions and cottages, the house fell out of style—eventually sitting empty. Still, it had merits: three wooded acres and close proximity to the Mountain Brook villages. Even better, designer Betsy Brown, architects Paul Bates and Jeremy Corkern, and landscape designer Norman Johnson had an itch to team up and revive the home as a fine example of what modern means now.

From the main level of the house, the striking rendition of Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s love interest, painted by Spanish artist Lita Cabellut, can be fully appreciated. A glass wall on the right-hand side of the fireplace provides a barrier to the living room without breaking the visual plane. Comfortable chairs and an ottoman situated adjacent to the dining room table punctuate the multipurpose aspect of the room. “One of my favorite things about the house is that we live in all of it. No area is set aside for one purpose only. Most areas function in multiple ways.” —homeowner

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“The original house was sited beautifully to the property, but it wasn’t open to the views, ” says Jeremy. By replacing walls with load-bearing supports, the design team aired out the interiors to reveal a bright spacious home consisting of one great space.

The view as you enter through the massive front door poses multiple temptations. Initially the eye is drawn across the light-filled room and through the full-length glass-and-steel windows and doors that form the opposing wall of the house, and then out into the wooded landscape.

From the kitchen, below, with the clean lines of its Italian Carrara marble-topped island and custom-built white oak cabinetry, to the elevated living room and adjacent screened porch, each area compels the visitor not only to take a closer look but to stay a while and enjoy the space. 

 Clean stainless steel surfaces, Italian Carrara marble (from Triton Stone, fabricated by Birmingham Marble Works), and the bleached white oak of the island create a kitchen that is as pleasing to view as to use. The chrome barstools, designed by Harry Bertoia in 1952, and the Brutalist steel rotating wall sculpture provide an edginess that is true to the roots of the new home.

With multipurpose functions as an entry, a dining room, or simply a place to settle down with a cup of coffee and a book, the expansive main room welcomes visitors in with unpretentious warmth. As Betsy Brown explains, “Not a dedicated dining room or entry, the grand expanse of space did present a challenge. The furniture scale needed to be large enough to fill the space and create a dramatic entry but at the same time comfortable enough to entice the family to relax and really live in it.”

The design of the home stayed true to the mantra of its modern lineage: form follows function. From air vents that disappear into their surroundings to custom-designed hardware, lighting, and furniture, each detail was carefully considered. Jeremy and Paul credit the influences of David Adler and French designer Jean-Michel Frank for their devotion to details. Doors that hide ample storage closets seem to seamlessly blend into walls with no break in the strong horizontal lines created by the white oak planks. Functionality and beauty combine in perfect harmony to complement the overall design.


LEFT: The master bedroom and adjacent lounge are tucked away from the rest of the house. In the bedroom, the soft whites and pale grays of the upholstery and walls create a serene ambiance. The large painting above the fireplace is by local artist Clayton Colvin (Beta Pictoris Gallery).
RIGHT:  Natural light reflects off of the hand-waxed fluted vanity and bleached white oak cabinets. A plush reindeer rug softens the clean lines of the dominant elements.

The results speak clearly of multiple creative energies that were skillfully intertwined through the design team. With a nod to its original “modern” roots, the aesthetically-pleasing home embraces the new “modern” ideals of versatility, efficiency, functionality, and comfort.


LEFT: For the front courtyard, landscape designer Norman Johnson chose brown Tennessee river gravel for a seamless amorphous effect. Horsetail reef plants will maintain their clean vertical lines to accent the linear aspects of the home.
RIGHT: The water feature, a special request from the homeowners, provides tranquil background noise that reinforces the natural elements.


interiors: Betsy Brown/BETSY BROWN INC 205.871.2424 • architects: Paul Bates and Jeremy Corkern/BATES CORKERN STUDIO 205.414.9939 •  garden design: NORMAN KENT JOHNSON • 205.960.8902  construction: HUFHAM FARRIS CONSTRUCTION 334.215.4495 •  wood finishes: JOHN POWERS 205.482.0904  custom furnishings (dining table; credenza; coffee table; side table in master): BETSY BROWN art over living room fireplace: LITA CABELLUT, BILL LOWE GALLERY  custom kitchen and bath design: BATES CORKERN STUDIO marble countertops: Triton Stone 205.592.0202 • countertop fabrication: Birmingham MarbleWorks 205.598.5585 rug: PAIGE ALBRIGHT ORIENTALS  205.877.3232 •  lantern by front door: BATES CORKERN STUDIO floors: River Bottom Pine 205.914.4572 •

Text by SALLY HERRING • Photography by jean allsopp

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