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Cathy Criss Adams’ house and garden are full of cottage charm
By Donna Cornelius
If Cathy Criss Adams’ house could be magically transported across the Pond, it would look perfectly at home with its neighbors.
Mellow sandstone walls, beamed ceilings and a charming perennial garden make the house distinctly English in style. In fact, its architects, from the firm of Warren Knight and Davis, called the structure a “Cotswold cottage.”
But the house wouldn’t be the same without its Redmont surroundings. Neither would its owner.
Cathy didn’t grow up in the historic Birmingham neighborhood. She likely knows more about it, however, than many who spent their childhoods there.
An accomplished writer, Cathy is the author of “Worthy of Remembrance,” an extensive history of Redmont. Her book started as a presentation for a national Neighborhood of the Year award.
“This was supposed to take about six months to do,” Cathy said. “It turned into two years, seven days a week. I spent hours in the library and interviewing people.”
When Cathy and husband Tom, a Mountain Brook native, got engaged, “He said, ‘We’re going to live in Redmont one day,’ ” she said. The couple started out in Crestline and then lived on Sterling Road for 18 years before moving to their Aberdeen Road home in 1997.
Built in 1923 for $76,000, the house was first owned by Charles and Margaret DeBardeleben.
“Our house stayed in one family until the early 1990s – two generations, except for an interim owner who was interested in old houses,” Cathy said. “It was in great shape. There were no bad 1960s-style renovations.”
The interim owner did install a new kitchen, and the Adamses upgraded the master bathroom and added a terrace overlooking the Birmingham skyline.
“If the original owners walked in today, they’d recognize their house,” Cathy said.
Elements typical of Warren Knight and Davis remain, such as niches in the living room and light fixtures designed by architect Will Warren and made in England.
“These architects were known for their attention to detail,” Cathy said.
The house still has radiators, hand-pegged tiger eye oak flooring and oak paneling in the living room. The quoin vaulted ceiling in the foyer is faux-finished molded plaster; the walls are hand-crafted “thumbprint” plaster.
An inviting Palladian sunroom is Tom’s favorite space for relaxing, Cathy said. She most loves the upstairs room designed with love and filled with family treasures for granddaughters Ashlyn Olivia and Skylar Ann Adams.
“When my mom died last fall, we found lots of toys in her attic,” Cathy said.
They also brought home a rocking chair that belonged to Cathy’s great-grandfather.
“When we went to clear out my mother’s house, my husband told me I could bring back only one U-Haul full of stuff,” she said. But when they saw the rocking chair on the front porch, Tom relented.
“He said we could get a second U-Haul if we had to so we could bring back that chair,” Cathy said. “He said, ‘I remember your dad sitting in that chair and reading to our children, and I want to be able to do that with our grandchildren.’ ”
The entire house is full of other reminders of the couple’s family. Portraits of their children, Jeff and Jenny, by artist Barbara Moon hang over fireplaces in the living room and sunroom. In the foyer is a photo of Tom’s grandmother, lovely in an ornate white dress.
“We thought it must be a wedding portrait, but it was actually taken for her high school graduation,” Cathy said.
Like the terrace, where Cathy and Tom usually eat when the weather’s fine, the rooms on the Crest Road side of the house offer sweeping views of downtown Birmingham. That’s not why the DeBardelebens and other early Redmont residents chose the location, according to Cathy.
“People were looking for cool breezes, not a view,” she said.
Cathy’s passion for gardening first bloomed at Aberdeen Road.
“At one time, this house had formal gardens with gardeners on site,” she said. “But when we moved here, nothing had been done for about 15 or 20 years.”
Although she “only knew about impatiens” at first, she set to work reviving the gardens with the help of Jeff Powell, owner of Petals from the Past in Jemison. The task wasn’t easy.
“Birmingham Botanical Gardens did an exhibition on the 50 most invasive plants, and all of them came from here,” she said. More rewarding finds were planters and olive jars buried in the ground.
The garden behind the house bursts with favorite flowers – sunflowers, coneflowers, day lilies, roses and hydrangeas – and with Japanese maples and a towering magnolia.
“This is more a spring and fall garden because that’s when I like to be outside,” Cathy said. “It’s technically a perennial bed with some annuals thrown in.”
Cathy also transformed a neglected lot across the street into a beauty spot. She and Powell planted Russian sage, coneflowers, Don Juan roses and phlox along a new fence with an arbor.
The Adamses love sharing their home, which was featured on HGTV’s popular “If Walls Could Talk” show. They often entertain and opened their garden to a Garden Conservancy tour in 2004.
Since both house and garden are so decidedly English, it seems fitting that Cathy and Tom were actually in England when they purchased their much-loved home.
“We bought it crammed together into one of those red telephone booths in Cornwall,” Cathy said.