Taking possession of an old house is like holding the keys to history in your hand. While it is a privilege to be the current caretaker of a home that has witnessed so much, it can also feel like the way you live in the house has to go back in time to fit inside its walls.
Not so, says this dream team of local design professionals who prove that it is possible to bring an old home into modern times without losing any of its charms. “What is so wonderful about a historical property is that there are already so many beautiful features and details to build around,” says architect Cherri Pitts.
For this 1929 Mountain Brook Tudor originally designed by Warren Knight & Davis, Cherri’s goal was to start a new chapter for the house. “I wanted to make sure it could provide a great flow and function and still feel historic,” she says. To that end, she reworked the floorplan.
Like most old homes, it was a warren of separate, small rooms with a kitchen tucked in the back corner of a hallway away from the home’s other public spaces. Cherri’s new plan, she says, “involved a few power moves.” She turned the former dining room and kitchen into the main bedroom and bath. The formal living space became a dining area big enough to host a crowd. “The original living room made for the perfect entertaining space,” says Cherri. “And it has doors to the new expanded front terrace.”
The existing den and game room became an open living space and kitchen. “They are separated by a double-sided fireplace and have doors to the pool and porch,” says the architect.
Cherri’s reconfigurations resulted in a main level that speaks to a contemporary lifestyle while respecting and celebrating the home’s history. “This house had gorgeous and expansive fenestrations, side porches linking the interiors to the lawn and pool, beautiful stair details, and original oak flooring,” Cherri says. “We did not want to lose any of these historic gems. Instead, we wanted to build on what was there and do it respectfully.”
The decorating magic of designers Richard Tubb and Gary Olivieri also added to the home’s renovate and refresh story. “Painting rooms all the same color makes the home feel fresh,” Richard says. He chose a soft ivory rather than a stark white, which can go blue and cold. “In sunlight, ivory appears as a different color in every room because of the play of the light—much like a strand of antique pearls.” Gary concurs, adding that “many times we paint the walls, trim, and ceilings the same color but use different sheens for contrast. The walls seem to disappear, creating a soft and soothing palette as a backdrop.” And for any owner of an old home, that offers the chance to write your own history on those storied walls.
Landscape designer Holley Camp opened up this yard and garden to give the home some breathing room. Here’s her advice for refreshing a historic lot.
Prune tall, established trees to let the sunlight in. Underplant with shorter trees such as dogwoods, redbuds, and crepe myrtles.
Brighten up a dark exterior with pea gravel, seen here in the rear courtyard, and light-colored pavers.
Opt for white and light plantings—especially in the shade. Holley chose hues of white and pale blue for the plant palette.
Consider the relationship between indoors and out. “We created outdoor spaces for living in the garden while also making sure we had gorgeous sight lines from every room in the house,” Holley says.
Old House, New Tricks
Keep all the character but update your home for today. This home’s design team offers tips that work whether you live in a historic Tudor or a dated rancher.
REARRANGE In older homes, the dining room is often small while the living room is large but not used because there is also a den or keeping room. “I often swap the spaces,” Richard says. “The small, original dining room can easily become an intimate seating area with a sofa and two chairs.”
TOP TO BOTTOM Low ceilings? “Finish your floors in a darker color to make the ceiling seem higher,” Richard says. Soaring ceilings? “A lighter finish on flooring brings ceilings down to a more comfortable height.”
STAND TALL Richard suggests raising kitchen counters from the standard 36-inch height to 37.5 inches from floor to countertop He adds that since most older toilets are low to the ground, it’s a good idea to install a comfort-height toilet for a better fit.
COLOR “I like to use as few colors as possible,” Gary says. Richard agrees: “Sometimes rooms don’t flow well, but you can create a flow by painting all walls the same color.” Both designers suggest painting walls in an eggshell finish, trim in high gloss, and the ceiling flat—all the same hue.
BE PATIENT “Prepare for the unexpected because you never know what you may run in to,” Gary says. “And when you feel like the project will never end, just remember that you will forget all of that when the project is complete and you are enjoying your home.”
END GAME “Be sensitive to the home’s original details, and take your cues from it when possible,” Cherri says. “The intent should be not to be able to tell there was a renovation once it’s complete. It should blend seamlessly with what is there.”
The Legacy of Warren Knight & Davis
William T. Warren, Eugene H. Knight, and John E. Davis formed Warren Knight & Davis in 1921. Over the years, the architecture firm became an integral part of not only the development of Birmingham but also of the state of Alabama—and ultimately much of the Southeast. The trio designed many well-known structures such as the Alabama Power Building, Independent Presbyterian Church, the Country Club of Birmingham, and the Swann House.
Architect: R. Cherri Pitts, AIA, Studio C Architecture Interior Design: Richard Tubb and Gary Olivieri, Richard Tubb Interiors; Landscape Design: Holley Camp, holleygardens