Escape to the lake.
Written by Tom Wofford
Photography by Beau Gustafson
According to American poetry’s most famous lake enthusiast, these placid bodies of water are “the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature.”
Henry David Thoreau was, of course, describing his beloved Walden “pond” 17 years before Birmingham was founded, but there can be no doubt the residents of the Magic City have long agreed with the writer who first glorified the joys of getting away from it all. More than ever before, in fact, Birmingham folks are now incorporating the joys of Alabama lakes into the rhythm of their lives.
“I grew up going to the lake,” said Patrick Scarborough, of Forest Park and Smith Lake. “Some of my best memories are of the lake.”
“There’s nothing like the sun setting across the water,” agreed Steve Taylor, who lives in Hoover, when he isn’t watching sunsets from the deck of his Lake Martin home or from his pontoon boat, surrounded by his family and a half-dozen other boats loaded with neighbors in communal appreciation of the dusk.
“Many afternoons the sunset leaves us absolutely in awe,” Taylor said.
It doesn’t take many conversations with part-time lake residents to see where William Wordsworth found the inspiration to write, “A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.”
Unlike other Alabama towns, Birmingham was founded without regard to water, except for what was needed for drinking and washing clothes. For centuries, Alabama’s lakes and rivers were essential means of transportation for the state’s native cultures, and after the Europeans arrived, the key settlements of the territory and later the largest towns in the young state were all located on waterways. Landlocked Birmingham was Alabama’s first big town dependent upon railroads, and while the people of the growing metropolis didn’t need water for transportation, they quickly realized they needed it for something perhaps almost as important: recreation. Only a few years after the first buildings went up along First Avenue and 20th Street, manmade bodies of water were created and neighborhoods sprang up named for them, like Lakeview and East Lake.
These days Birmingham’s central location puts it within a short drive of some of the most beautiful of the state’s 33 lakes, and they have become an increasingly more important part of the lives of many more people in the metro area.
“It’s an hour-and-a-half, door to door from our house in Greystone,” Joe Covington Jr. said of his Lake Martin cottage. “And that’s not driving fast,” he continued with a laugh. The CEO of Covington Flooring, a Birmingham-based regional flooring contractor known for, among other things, its world-class basketball courts, Covington chose Lake Martin in 2009 for his family’s second home, because of its proximity to Auburn, where his kids attended college, but equally for its proximity to the family’s weekday lives.
“We’d had a beach house before,” said Joe’s wife, Cathy, a healthcare consultant with Children’s of Alabama, “and we are able to enjoy the lake house so much more because it’s so much more convenient.”
At about 1,600 square feet, the Covington’s lake home is a manageable size, “but it really lives large. It feels very wide open,” Joe said. “The house sleeps six, but when the kids bring friends, we sometimes have a dozen folks in here comfortably.” The house has a rustic feel, including pine floors, and when they first saw the house, “it just felt like us.” The Covingtons have a diverse group of lake neighbors, including a local family who run a nearby store and two Atlanta families. The families have all become so neighborly they recently built a common deck for the Covington home and the four cottages nearest it.
While Joe and Cathy spend their weekdays in Birmingham, the convenience of Lake Martin means they don’t shutter the property at the end of autumn. “We really enjoy coming down a lot in the winter,” Joe said.
Erle Morring’s family “have always been water people,” he said. “One of the first pictures of me is when I’m about 6 months old in our boat, on the water.” Morring grew up in Huntsville, and after he finished college and moved to Birmingham, his parents bought a house on Lake Guntersville, which the family has enjoyed year-round for almost 20 years. “It’s a incredible cottage, built in the 1950s by a German rocket scientist who came to Huntsville with Werner Von Braun after World War II,” Morring said. “It’s a beautiful design on a big flat lot. We have always loved it.”
Since Morring’s parents retired, their house is used almost as much during the week as on weekends.“No matter the season, someone is at the lake house all year long. We keep on making memories on the lake, just like we always have,” he said.
A Dothan native, Scarborough grew up spending family weekends on Lake Eufaula. “My best memories of growing up are from being on the water there,” he said. These days the same 20-foot inboard/outboard boat from his childhood pulls water skiers around Smith Lake, renamed “Eufaula Me” in honor of its younger days.
Scarborough, manager of operation services at Southern Company Services, and his husband, C.A. “Tony” Lee III, bought their property in 2008, “but it continues to be a work in progress.” Lee grew up nearby in Jasper, and the couple’s summer weekends almost always include Friday night dinners there with members of the Lee family. “We both enjoy having company,” Lee said, entertaining friends from Birmingham often. “We love casual entertaining, bringing people up, grilling out,” Scarborough said, and with four bedrooms and more than 2,300 square feet, the couple’s Smith Lake property has plenty of room for plenty of guests. “We have people up pretty much every weekend that we come up here,” he said.
Steve and Susan Taylor spend as much time at their lake home as they do in their home in Hoover. Steve, who owns his own architecture firm, routinely heads down on Thursday nights and returns to Birmingham on Monday morning, while Susan and one of the Taylor’s two daughters are more or less permanent lake residents.
“We were never really beach people,” Taylor said. “We never liked the drive. One summer, though, we did rent a condo on the Gulf. After two days the girls were demanding to go back to the lake,” Taylor laughed.
When they decided to buy a lake home in 2001, the Taylors did their preliminary research on the internet, and were able to narrow down the properties they were interested in from the comfort of their living room in Hoover. It’s a way of finding lake property that is rapidly becoming easier and more comprehensive thanks to a fast-growing company run by another Hoover couple, Glenn and Doris Phillips, who operate the website LakeHomes.com and its associated Lake Homes Realty.
“That’s one unique thing about people who want to buy lake property,” Glenn said, “they are usually making their inquiries from somewhere else other than where they want to buy. Before our site, it could be an extremely time-consuming process that was quite disruptive to a family’s routine. But not anymore.”
Glenn explained: “Before our site, unless you were familiar with a specific lake or knew an agent there, you couldn’t do much research without taking time off work, and devoting lots of weekends to simply becoming familiar with a lake and its unique properties. With LakeHomes.com, we now have a unique tool for the consumer that didn’t exist before,” Glenn said.
Now with the recently expanded and upgraded website, “We have thousands of lake homes all at one address—one web address,” Doris Phillips said with a smile. Doris is Lake Homes Realty’s chief operating officer, a licensed realtor who does much of the hands-on work connecting prospects with agents who know the specific lake of interest. A “dual-entrepreneur household,” as Glenn light-heartedly describes himself and Doris, they each own businesses they built before taking charge of Lake Homes Realty.
The Phillips’ unique combination of skills and experience is one thing that brought them to the attention of the original investors in LakeHomes.com, including primary shareholder Duane Donner II, managing partner at Founders Investment Banking, and part-time Lake Martin resident.
“We had this great domain name and an exceptional opportunity to become experts in a key market niche in real estate,” Donner said. “We were nearing the end of the downturn in real estate, and we wanted a superior business model for the coming resurgence. The opportunities we now have ahead of us are extremely exciting.”
“We’re 100 percent focused on lake homes and lake property, with a powerful technological component to make the experience convenient and fast,” Donner continued.
Even though the new management team has only been in place at Lake Homes for less than a year, the site already features more Alabama lake properties than any other website, more than 3,500 properties on 33 lakes in the state, as well as an additional 15,000 properties in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Georgia and Tennessee will be added before the end of the summer.
“We think we’ll be nationwide in only a couple more years,” Phillips said.
While the website is now a highly valuable tool for people shopping for lake property, Glenn is emphatic in pointing out that the site is not a substitute for real estate agents or in any way an attempt to replace them.
“At no point did we imagine we were building some web-only concept that would remove realtors from the process,” he said. “Real estate is still sold by human beings who are local experts, and we have local agents in place, and we’re adding more every month.”
The Lake Homes Realty site combines data from various real estate multiple listing services, filters out the information that isn’t valuable to potential lake property sellers and clients. “Before this site there has been no easy way to compare one lake to another,” Glenn said. “It’s great to have the ability to consider individual lakes as neighborhoods with their own styles, cultures and personalities.”
Whether it’s from the vantage point of the Covington’s cherished screened-in porch, which seems to extend their home’s great room toward the lake, from the wide deck of the Scarborough/Lee home, or the tiny fleet of pontoon boats that gathers at the end of the day on Lake Martin for happy hour fellowship, the sunset on an Alabama lake is something universally treasured.
A recent lung cancer survivor, Steve Taylor has begun capturing the Lake Martin sunsets in watercolor. “These sunsets have always been beautiful, but after the cancer my powers of observation have increased exponentially,” Taylor said. “These sunsets lately are possibly the most intense things I’ve ever seen.”
As Thoreau wrote, a lake “is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”