By Laura McAlister
The 25 rooms and outdoor spaces on display at this year’s showcase have different themes and stories to tell, but if you want to hear the real story of what life was like in the 2011 Decorators’ ShowHouse, you’ll want to talk to Ed Pyle.
Ed is the property manager and groundskeeper of the Mountain Brook estate once occupied by the late Thomas E. Jernigan, his wife and their two children. While Ed has worked at the estate only for about eight years, he got to know the entrepreneur and philanthropist quite well before Jernigan’s death three years ago, and there’s just about no one who knows more about the day-to-day work it takes to keep up the estate.
Although Jernigan has passed on, and his family has moved out of the house, Ed is still employed by the estate.
“Tom, he just really did things right. He was so exceptional and did so much for people,” Ed said. “I remember he would sit out here on this porch drinking a glass of wine watching his bird feeders – he especially like hummingbirds – and he’d say, ‘This is the way to live.’ ”
It was the way to live for Jernigan and his family from 1987 until his death in 2008.
The house was built in 1966 by George Rust of Rust Engineering. The 20,000-square-foot home that now sits on nearly five acres of land was built by Brice Construction and would take more than a year to complete.
In 1980, Jimmy Filler purchased the home, but it’s Jernigan who made it what it is today.
When the former CEO and owner of Marathon Corp. purchased the home, he had it completely renovated – inside and out.
“Tom said the house looked like a big hotel,” Ed said.
Jernigan hired Henry Moretti, a design consultant and sculptor from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to redesign the home. Moretti’s plan called for lower ceilings, custom woodwork and five Italian marble fireplaces.
As for the exterior of the house, the front was reconfigured to include a waterfall and collecting pond. The swimming pool that once extended inside the house was moved completely outside, Ed said.
In the back, a loggia and veranda were added to give the home a transitional style with Mediterranean elements. The roof is made with concrete shingles, and the main level sits on a concrete slab.
“That house, it’s a bomb shelter,” Ed said.
As far as the landscaping, it’s the three-hole golf course designed by Charles Carter of Pell City that really adds to the resort feel of the home. The course was laid out so golfers could tee off in two different directions, making it more like a six-hole course.
It took nine months to complete the redesign. But in the end, Jernigan had a home that fit his lifestyle, with lots of outdoor space and plenty of room for entertaining.
“This was a busy house,” Ed said. “There were two teenagers in the house and Tom’s second wife. He’d have little golf tournaments out here. He did things right.
“He loved football. He’d have maybe 75-80 people here for games. He had a movie theater downstairs and then the den. They really had a good time.”
In addition to being an avid golfer, Jernigan was an avid Alabama football fan. UA’s athletic director Mal Moore was even known to visit the Jernigan home, and Ed remembers that former Tide quarterback Kenny Stabler once accompanied the AD.
Often during the visits, Ed said, Jernigan was being approached about giving to a certain cause, and give he did, quietly.
“He was very humble,” Ed said. “He was always helping people and giving. He had a closet full of plaques that he didn’t want anyone to see. He just enjoyed giving. He was a really gracious person.”
Another thing Jernigan enjoyed was travel. He had homes in North Carolina and Palm Springs, Fla., as well as a private jet and yacht. Ed said ShowHouse decorators weren’t allowed to remove Jernigan’s world map on the hallway outside the kitchen. The map covers most of the wall; on the opposite wall is a digital map displaying time zones throughout the world.
“When they started (the ShowHouse), they started to take that down,” Ed said of Jernigan’s world map. “I said ‘No, that would be a sin.’ ”
Though Jernigan was known to grab some of his golfing buddies from the Country Club of Birmingham to fly south for a few rounds of golf on a moment’s notice, it was at home and work where he liked being most.
Jernigan would start his day with breakfast prepared by his chef, Ed said.
“Tom would sit there in the kitchen watching the news and reading the paper while the chef prepared his breakfast,” he said. “Then, the chef would fix his lunch and deliver it to his office. You see, Tom had a full kitchen in his office, but he didn’t want the whole place smelling.”
In addition to a chef and property manager and groundskeeper, the Jernigans also employed two full-time housekeepers. Ed had about four people working under him. The household, he said, needed every one of its employees at the time.
To get an idea how large the estate is – and how active the family was while there – Ed said the average power bill was $4,000; in the summer, it was more like $6,000. The water bill could exceed $2,000 a month.
As Ed said, it was a busy house, but things changed after Jernigan’s death. The family moved out, and the house is now for sale. Ed’s staff has dwindled to about half of what it used to be, but there’s still plenty to do, especially during the growing season, and especially with the Decorators’ ShowHouse set to open in just a few days.
The ShowHouse will kick off April 29 with an Opening Gala, which will also celebrate the Alabama Symphony Orchestra’s 90th anniversary. Then the home will be open from April 30-May 15 for tours.