Written by Lindsey Osborne
Photography by Edward Badham
Darwin Bell and Sandra Gilley knew from the moment they stepped inside the house that it would be theirs. It was old—built in 1914—but wore its age well. The house was built on a steep lot on Arlington Crescent, which gave it two things: a magnificent view and a labyrinthine interior, spread across four stories. But to Bell and Gilley, it was perfect and well worth the resources and time it would take to update it. “There was a certain feeling of familiarity that we had when we first visited 2500 Arlington Crescent; it seemed like home from the first day we saw it. We had been to see a house in Homewood and were driving back over the mountain to see a home on Highland Avenue when we saw the Open House sign for what would eventually become our home,” they explain. “It was a lovely fall afternoon and the welcoming front porch and open windows with gentle breezes blowing in captivated us.”
That was in 2004. Over the next decade, the pair lived in the house but also spent time away (namely in Charleston, South Carolina, for work). They began discussing renovation plans in late 2011 and started implementing them in 2014. Their goal was to make the house more functional in today’s world while maintaining the aesthetic and quirks that remind them it was built more than a century ago. To do so, they partnered with architect Robert Thompson, who helped steer and develop their vision for their home while adding his own as well. “For the renovated areas, we wanted a modern look to coexist with the historic exterior and front rooms,” Thompson says. “This aesthetic tells the history of the house without creating a false sense of what is original to the house. However, we infused this modern look with a rich palette of colors and materials so it would blend seamlessly with the original part of the house.”
Admittedly, updating the house presented a challenge. The back half of the house had originally been the working area, including screened-in sleeping porches and a fireplace used to cook meals. Much of the day-to-day living in the original home had been done in the front of the house. Plus, because of the steep lot, the front is two stories, while the back contains four (when creating the garage, Bell and Gilley actually ended up creating a new room to make up for the space between the garage and the deck off the third story.) There are new rooms at every turn, including several on the second story that Bell and Gilley hope to eventually turn into a separate suite. “We understood from the outset that this was going to be a real challenge,” Bell says. “Because on the one hand, the front third of our home would have minimal renovations, while the back two thirds would undergo major renovations. The tension from day one was how to meld these two parts of our home into a seamless work of art.”
Over the course of 19 months, Bell, Gilley, Thompson, builder Kelly Watson (with Bluestone Building), and interior designer Janet Clifton (with Defining Home) worked to fulfill Bell and Gilley’s vision. To start, what was originally three rooms in the kitchen area was opened up into one, which provides Bell and Gilley with an open entertaining space overlooking the lights of the Magic City. “Before the renovations, the kitchen was remote and cramped. Still, guests would congregate there to chat with Darwin while he cooked,” Gilley says. “This required sort of a ‘dance’ where everyone was constantly trying to move out of the way. Limited counter space and a stove that was in the corner of the room made it difficult to have more than several folks in the kitchen at the same time. Now, the expanded kitchen with the cooktop island and counter top is the center of activity and the openness allows guests to lend a hand with cooking and it greatly facilitates socializing.” Their brick pizza oven in the corner of the kitchen both pays homage to the chimney that once ran there and creates delicious pizzas.
A Nanawall in the kitchen can be opened so that the space expands out onto the deck, overlooking Bell’s garden area in the yard, which was previously inaccessible. The addition of the garage—plus a driveway, elevator, and outside staircase—changed that and gave Bell a space to grow vegetables and keep bees. “Prior to the renovations, there was a single window in the kitchen, where we could look out to see a backyard in terrible condition with only a little grass and lots of rocks and red clay. It was not easily accessible, and we had literally been in the backyard only a few times during the 12 years that we had lived in our home,” Bell explains. “As part of the overall renovation project, we worked with Andrew Martin and Richter Landscape Company to develop a unique space in which we now spend a considerable amount of time. This is a working backyard, with planter boxes for a vegetable garden and beehives. We have found that this expansion in our home living space, and these new activities, have enriched our lives.”
Upstairs, the master bedroom was moved to the rear of the house, facing the view. Thompson added a bank of tall windows on one side so that the pair could take advantage of it. In the master bath, a copper Japanese soaking tub made Gilley’s relaxation dreams come true. The laundry room was also moved close by.
Though the house now functions seamlessly, it does retain many details that remind all who come through that it belongs to another time. A stained-glass window overlooks a landing on the way up to the fourth story. The original doors and floors were refinished and remain. The original floor-to-ceiling fireplace greets visitors upon entry. In the basement, a large space with exposed brick and 15-foot ceilings includes a Prohibition Room, used to store liquor during the Prohibition era (this was used by the first owners of the home, the Douglasses, who lived there for 60 years.) Standing there, Bell and Gilley are reminded of the beautiful truth of owning an old house: They’re only part of its story. “We are the fourth owners and know the second and third owners,” Bell says. “They still come by every now and then to see the house and to tell us stories of the time that they lived at 2500 Arlington Crescent.”