If These Walls Could Talk

This Southside cottage wears its history well.

Written & photographed by Graham Yelton

Styling by Kathy D’agostino

In the midst of Birmingham’s bustling Southside community sits a quaint and happy cottage. Perched on a small hill, it’s surrounded by a perfectly curved hedge, manicured patches of creeping fig on the home’s exterior and colorful flowers spilling over the stone wall that runs along the sidewalk. The house is tucked into the plush greenery, so you could almost miss it. A rustic stone path leads you through the small garden and up to the pistachio-colored front door.

“The architecture and historic nature is why I was drawn to it. It’s very eclectic,” says Randy McDaniel, a landscape designer, who purchased the house in 2002 with plans to make it his studio. At that time, the house had an unkempt front yard and had been somewhat of a schizophrenic rental property. “Let’s see, It was an art gallery, then a yoga studio and then a counseling center,” he says.

Perhaps the most notable chapter in this home’s story is the first. The cottage was built in the early 1900s by local architect Hugh Martin Sr. as a honeymoon cottage for his wife Ellie. The couple had three children, the eldest being Hugh Martin Jr., the accomplished composer, arranger and playwright. He is best known for his score for the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me In St. Louis, in which Judy Garland sang three Martin songs, “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Martin wrote several of these classics in the cozy Southside cottage. Martin’s childhood home was mentioned in the book Christmas Tales of Alabama. The author writes, “It was a happy home, filled with music and love, the one to which all the children in the neighborhood would come.”

“I’ve tried to put the house back in a way that it is respectful to the architect,” McDaniel explains, although he admits his first priority was to improve the curb appeal. Randy learned a lot about the house while working outside. “I would be working in the yard and people walking by would stop and chat,” he says. “Everyone had a story about the house.” It seemed that most of the neighborhood had been a part of the home’s past. Some neighbors even claim that the house was haunted.

Among McDaniel’s favorite spots at the cottage is the newly added patio. He collected old boards from a friend’s deck renovation and extended the original patio another 10 feet. “I think I have about $40 in that deck!” he says, laughing. Succulents and peach trees line the patio. Odd containers, such as a rusty tool box on a cement pillar, create layers of texture and color at the edge of the space. “Its fun to sit up there,” McDaniel says. “There are always people walking by on the sidewalk, but it’s private enough that you can sit quietly if you like.”

McDaniel’s inventiveness continues throughout the home’s interior. The house was structurally in great shape, but the bathrooms and kitchen needed aesthetic improvements. Interesting antiques are mixed with new pieces. “I like things that you can just use,” McDaniel says. “The wear of them adds to the character. But if everything is old, it can look like your grandmothers house, so you have to throw in something new or funky. “

Randy has done just that with the home. The wear of it certainly has character, and the new greenery has given it fresh life. If these walls could talk, they would be very happy.

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