A House Worth Waiting For


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Written by Joe O’Donnell   Photography by Jean Allsopp

Jim and Jean Thompson first noticed the lot more than a quarter century ago. The couple had just moved to Birmingham and were looking for a home, but the timing for this lot and this homeowner just did not quite match up. Timing as everyone knows is just about everything.

“We ended up living on the other side of the country club and built a big house over there. Finally after some time I just decided I could not wait any longer and I told my real estate agent to see if we could buy the house that was here and then we would tear it down. That’s how we ended up with it,” says Jim.

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So the story of this house and this couple stretch back more than 25 years, but when you listen to Jean describe the house you realize the true genesis, the origin of this beautifully rendered building of stone and slate and manicured grounds, goes back centuries to a medieval church in Spain.

All things of beauty start with an idea, a detail, or perhaps a simple memory. For Jean the origin of the house that she and her husband would build on this lot across from Birmingham Country Club stands in their foyer, placed exactly where guests, friends and family first experience the house.

It is an iron table, tall, its half-moon shape tucked up against the wall…a token of strength and age anchoring a vision for just what the Thompsons wanted for their house.

“Every house I have ever built always grew out of a certain piece of furniture or some item that sort of set the tone for everything that followed. That’s the way I felt about this table. I knew that it would be perfect for the kind of home I wanted,” Jean says.

Jim and Jean brought quite a lot of experience to the process of building a home. And make no mistake, they will tell you, it is a process. The first house the couple built in Birmingham took 26 months. When they were ready to build this current house, they assembled a great team that they were comfortable with to bring a vision to life.

“We know how to work in a really comfortable way,” Jim says.  “We can draw things on a napkin and know if that hits the hot button or not.”

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Architect Jeff Dungan, who just won the prestigious ADAC Architect of the year for the Southeastern Region award, designed the house. Dungan’s creative work can been seen throughout North and Central America. Recognized for his clean and modern approach to traditional vernaculars and classical architecture, he is a fresh voice in the industry. In addition to his architecture, he brings passion, depth and an endless enthusiasm for the people he works with.

“We really wanted an understated house, but we have three children and seven grandchildren so we needed some space, too,” Jim says.

The design is a two-story house but the first story was essentially created as a basement, making the house fit the neighborhood, according to Jim.

Though they are opinionated, the couple understands how to work with architects, builders and designers to end up with a house that meets their needs. In fact, because the couple understands what they want, the building process tends to go much more smoothly.

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The Thompsons chose Francis Bryant Construction to build the home. The company that began as a one-man operation in 1960 with a carpenter from Birmingham framing houses with diligent detail has grown into a premium custom construction company with nearly 600 builds to its credit. Today, Francis Bryant Construction prides itself on timeless craftsmanship skills, the ability to recruit top artisans, and a passion for serving others. Francis Bryant Construction dedicates itself to bringing its clients’ dream projects to life. Steve Bryant was second generation owner of Francis Bryant and is now chairman emeritus. John Bryant is principal and president, and Kevin Gann is principal and vice president. “You are doing something right if you have a great reputation over three generations,” Jim says.

The Thompsons were involved in all of the aspects of working with and getting to know the craftsmen building their home, right down to bringing biscuits in the morning.

“After talking to Steve and John I knew we would get along very well. I like to be on the job site nearly every day because that is the way I am,” says Jim, who has been around construction all of his adult life. “Because we knew what we wanted it was easier to build it for the contractor.”

“You really end up having a relationship with the people who work on your house.”

Steve agrees: “It was one of the easiest, most fun jobs we ever did. If we ever hit a stumbling block we knew how to work through it.”

Building a house like this is part science and part art, according to Steve. Improvisation plays a role, being a great problem solver helps.

Two great examples of how solving problems worked well in this project involved light and stone.

The structure around the stairway down to the basement from the living area was originally a solid wall. When it became obvious that this impeded the flow of light through the living room windows, that structure itself was changed to glass so that light flooded through to both the first floor and the basement, utterly transforming the space.

The Thompsons knew they wanted a slate tile roof. In fact, Jim found the perfect tiles in Europe where they were once on the roof of a French monastery. But there was worry about the breakage factor. That was solved when Francis Bryant visited the Biltmore mansion in Asheville and, after taking an attic tour of the building, realized that the tiles were installed by wires and not nails. They then implemented this wiring system on the Thompsons’ house to prevent any of the tile clay pieces from cracking. “I thought that was a great idea,” Jim says. “I was surprised how quickly it went on.”

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From the outside in, the Thompson house is a spectacular example of collaboration between homeowner, architect, designer and builder/craftsmen.

“This is a totally concrete house with stone on the outside. The neighbors who watched us build it signed up that they wanted to come to our house if there was a tornado,” Jim says.

The stone was laid by the Johnson family out of Oneonta, Jim says, and he worked with them to get exactly the idiosyncratic look he wanted. “I said, ‘Look guys, this is what I want. I want it to look like a farmer just found stones in the field and used them to build his farmhouse.’ I didn’t want everything perfect. I wanted it to look a certain way.

“Once they got the spirit of what I wanted, they got into it as well. But it was hard for them because they are used to making things look perfect,” Jim says.

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More than perfect, the Thompsons wanted to realize their authentic vision. The plaster inside is, well, “manicured” is the best way to describe the quality of the work. The pewter counters in the kitchen and the limestone combine to make for a wonderful warmth within the large kitchen with the entire space beautifully illuminated with natural light from a skylight above.

There is an easy flow through the house with a benediction of light throughout the living area, kitchen and den. “The den is where we really live,” Jean says. Above the den is a loft with a library and a bedroom. Powerful old beams adorn the ceilings throughout.

Paige Schnell of Tracery Interiors worked on all of the interior spaces, planning for everything from custom made doors in the master suite to the light-filled basement. “I like to have pretty where I actually live. I want our lives to have beauty,” Jean says. “The basement is one of the glories of the house because it doesn’t feel like a basement.”

The basement houses a large laundry area as well as bedrooms, workrooms and storage space. The best use of the space though, for Jim and Jean, are the fort building and art projects created by the couple’s grandchildren.

Then, just outside the basement, the family and guests encounter one of the most beautiful areas anywhere on the homesite. What was once the old driveway has been transformed into a grove of green space, stone and light. It is a perfect microcosm of this extraordinary home.

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