A Highland Park Treasure

Historic charm and fine craftsmanship abound in the Burnett-Morrow residence

by Mary Ellen Stancill   Photography by Beau Gustafson

David Whitley has always had an eye for fine craftsmanship. “You couldn’t get out of high school without taking furniture making,” explains the North Carolina native of his long held interest. For years he had a backyard woodshop and built clocks as a hobby. So, when he walked into an intricately detailed home in Birmingham’s historic Highland Park neighborhood, he was instantly won over and made an offer that day. Seven years later, he is still just as enthralled with the home that he now shares with his wife Atalie and their blended family of high school and college age children.

Officially known as the Burnett-Morrow residence, the century old home was completed in 1910 by R.D. Burnett who owned a cigar company as well as other successful businesses. It is unclear why, but just a few years after the home was built the property was sold to Hugh Morrow, an attorney, state senator and president of Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company, who lived there with his family for many years.

Though the house has changed hands a number of times since the Morrows owned it, today it retains an astonishing amount of its original details. On the main floor, quarter sawn oak panels—cut to show off the grain of the wood and popular during the Arts and Crafts movement—are stained so darkly they are often mistaken for mahogany. All of the wood throughout the home is thought to have been hand cut on site, allowing for the lengthy boards with some single pieces stretching 15 to 20 feet. Original hand-painted wall paper detailing in the foyer and dining room break up the heavy wood and hand inlaid detailing is also found on the two downstairs fireplaces and the stairwell beams and railings.

Throughout the home, many other original features remain including: hardwood floors, windows with working brass hardware and leaded and beveled glass detailing on the front door and side lights, and beveled glass is even inlaid in pocket doors. Many original light fixtures remain in the home, including in the foyer and on the front of the house. In the breakfast room, the chandelier is thought to be by Tiffany.

Even on the fourth floor of the home, walls are several feet thick with layers of brick and wood. “It’s a very difficult house to get Internet signals through,” says David. During a previous renovation of the home, a solid silver sink was uncovered in the butler’s pantry. Since silver is a soft metal, this sink was used to wash china without chipping the delicate pieces. Today, the Whitleys use this area as the bar for parties, filling the sink with ice for chilling wine.

While the home has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for many years, previous owners carefully and thoughtfully restored it for modern living. On the second floor, a master suite was created by converting two small bedrooms connected by a Jack and Jill style bathroom into a bedroom with the original wood burning fireplace, bathroom luxuriously covered in Alabama white marble and a dressing room with plenty of closet storage. In the backyard, a pool with Roman fountains was added and surrounded by a brick wall and the original kitchen building is now the pool house. In the basement, there is a media room, laundry room and several bedrooms and bathrooms. The house is even wired for a sound system.

Since most of the renovations were completed before David and Atalie moved into the home, they have been able to focus recent attention on furnishing the home. A collector of Stickley furniture, David had purchased a dining room table and chairs and several other Stickley pieces before they were married. Recently, they called on the assistance of interior decorator Richard Tubb . “The house can be a little dark because of all the dark, stained wood paneling and the wood floors,” explains Atalie. “What we wanted to do as far as furnishing it was to soften it up a little bit.” Richard helped the couple transform the living room, sunroom, study and master bedroom with light colored upholstered pieces that juxtapose the original details of the home without overwhelming them.

The exterior of the home looks much the same as it did when it was originally completed. Though at first glance the home reads as all brick, wood detailing abounds. “There’s more wood on this house than most wooden houses,” jokes David. Glazed terra cotta on railings, window ledges and chimneys resembles limestone. Large pots made from the same glazed terra cotta material are original to the house and were made onsite by a company out of New York.

Evenings spent people watching on the front porch or afternoons around the backyard pool are favorite ways the family spends their days in the home. And David and Atalie love the walk-able commute to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where they both work. But, the house itself is still the biggest draw. “It’s seems we’re always finding something new,” says Atalie. “Even when you think you’ve searched and looked at every piece of wood and every piece of trim in the house. We’re always finding a new surprise.”


Styling:Tim Burt

Interiors: Richard Tubb and Gary Olivieri,

Richard Tubb Interiors

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