Home and Garden

Home and Garden

Written by Barbara Thomas Photography by Michael Clemmer

Garden design and installation

by Paul Visser of Myers Plants and Pottery

It was love at first sight when I first saw the charming  four bay Georgian in Highland Park. Its wide front porch was warm and welcoming.  I said I’d never change a thing. Then, over the next 18 years, I changed almost everything, not out of dissatisfaction but from an homage to the history the house’s owners played in events of early Birmingham.

The house at was built in 1926 by Dr. Samuel Ravaud Benedict,  a physician who was educated at the University of Georgia and the Medical College of Virginia. In 1912, he married Martha Milner, daughter of Henry Key Milner, an iconic figure in Birmingham’s early history. They belonged to the Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham Country Club and Southern Club.  A subsequent resident, Theodore “Teddy” Randolph, was vice president of Gulf States Construction and Harbert International. ( Credit Birmingham’s Highland Park by Richard Dabney.)

The home was built as a single family, changed into a triplex, then changed back to a single family. Many of the original features, such as the 18-light mullioned casement windows in the living and dining rooms, were intact.  So began my campaign to restore the house to what it may have been when the Benedicts lived there, replacing any modern doors and hardware with solid, recessed panel antique doors with antique Arts and Crafts brass hardware on the two interior doors .

The heavy solid fir entry French doors were reclaimed from an historic home from Pennsylvania, custom fit for the Milner house, refitted with antique glass and  custom finished. The entry door is adorned by a heavy-duty, original, antique door set made by The Chicago Manufacturing Company of Chicago during the late 1800s.  The bronze knobs and escutcheons are solid, heavy, thick, cast bronze, not stamped bronze or plated iron.  The doors were custom fit, repaired, sanded and painted and driven to Birmingham from Pennsylvania to ensure they arrived safely and without blemish. Antique doors and hardware were from Penn Antique Restoration.

The first floor, living room, dining room and hall, now include River Recovered heart pine floors (estimated at 400 years old.) Jim Flournoy of Old River Sawmill recovered the log from the Apalachicola River. The log was dried, milled and installed by River Bottom Pine.

A custom mantle with white Carerra marble hearth and surround has become a focal part of the living room. Birmingham wood artisan Morgan Floyd used hand-carved wooden appliqués, combined with various moldings, to create the custom mantle.

Birmingham contractor Steve Johnson was a rare find in installing antique locks and hardware and in sanding away probably 87 years of paint layers on some of the wooden trim. He also installed the new kitchen, with cabinets in keeping with the style of the house. River Bottom Pine also installed the reclaimed barn oak flooring in the kitchen, butler’s pantry and laundry room.

The home’s original pine floors remain in the second floor bedrooms and third floor loft/attic. The original tile and claw foot tub remain in the upstairs bath, augmented by a massive stained glass panel.

When I bought the home, a massive asphalt parking pad was a holdover from the home’s one time use as a triplex and a wire fence encircled an egg-shaped grassy area that was reached by glorious antique Rockmart  brick steps…a jewel waiting to be discovered.

There were various efforts to disguise the asphalt parking lot, but it took Paul Visser’s vision to bring it to life as a meditative Asian style garden, with a bubbling water feature, massive Asian gates, and Japanese maples in giant pots. Visser installed three 40-foot River Birches, digging giant holes through the asphalt, landscape lighting and metal Chinese symbols crafted by a California metal artist. He also built an additional brick wall with antique bricks, in front of an original stone wall, added lights, a large fountain urn surrounded by Buddhas and Quan Yins to create the atmosphere of serenity. A large, three-tiered stone pagoda fountain trickles water drops at the other end of the courtyard. The asphalt was covered by truckloads of pea gravel, in keeping with the Asian garden style.

Morgan Floyd built a massive cedar daybed and Asian style table with joinery, no nails or screws, to create outdoor rooms for lounging or dining.

In the side, hidden garden, a stone waterfall sends water cascading through a cobalt blue urn. Azaleas, cast iron plants, camellias and azaleas cover the steep slope that was once a weed–covered mess.

A small circle of stones, with miniature mondo grass growing between, balances a garden bench surrounded by Lenten roses, pachysandra, camellias, daffodils, iris and huechera to create an ideal place for morning coffee and greeting the world in a quiet, idyllic environment. Visitors to the front entrance would never guess the hidden garden just below offered such a peaceful retreat in the middle of the in town neighborhood.

A white picket fence now circles the top of the “hidden” garden, with New Dawn roses spilling over the arbor entrance down to the garden from street level and on top of the fence encircling the top of the garden and shielding visibility from the back alley that was integral to life during the Arts and Crafts era.

Large five–foot George Taber azaleas also provide some privacy from the street, along with the hybrid tree camellias that line the back fence.

2 Responses to “Home and Garden”

  1. What a beautiful renovation, taking years to make sure that comfort endured while style evolved. We can tell this has been a labor of love. Thanks for the narrative and the photos to go along with it!

  2. Barbra was a joy to work for and still is, a few upcoming project in the near future. Charming homeowner and a beautiful home to be part of the restoration was inspiring! Philip Flores River Bottom Pine Flooring

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