By Donna Cornelius
When architect James Carter meets with clients, he asks a question: What do you want your house to say about you?
His own house makes a statement, but not in stark black-and-white terms.
“I wanted to express the duality of my personality – casual and formal, city and country,” Carter said.
Thus, the house he built three years ago in Mountain Brook is full not only of treasures collected from his travels, but also family possessions dear to his heart. He’s just as fond of the little toy steam engine that belonged to his father as he is of a Chippendale-style writing table, a Chinese export he found in New York. The house’s walls hold a collection of Italian gouache paintings, maps, portraits – and a painting done by his grandmother when she was 7 years old.
“It all means something,” Carter said.
Since establishing his Birmingham firm – James F. Carter, Architect – in 1994, he’s made a name for himself with his classical aesthetics. His work has been featured in House Beautiful, Southern Accents, Traditional Home and Veranda magazines as well as in books on classical design. His own house has appeared in Veranda and other magazines and also will be in an upcoming book.
His projects extend beyond Alabama.
“We set up a website a few years ago, and suddenly, we have jobs in all parts of the country, not just in Birmingham and Alabama anymore,” Carter said.
South Alabama Boy
In some ways, he’s come a long way from Monroeville, where he grew up. But in other ways, his career is a natural expression of his roots.
“When I was a kid, I’d ride my bike and look at houses being built,” he said. “From the age of 5, I drew house plans.”
Carter studied architecture at Auburn University, which he said had a modernist program of study. But he was determined to stay true to his classical principles.
“Classical design is a backdrop for your life,” he said. “I want to help people design a house to pass on to their children.”
Carter said that, although he appreciates both contemporary and traditional design, the architecture of the late 1700s and early 1800s appeals to his classical sensibilities.
“I thought I’d live in Maryland or Virginia,” he said. “There’s such a strong history of that period in the architecture there.”
Instead, friends and family drew Carter to Birmingham after he graduated from Auburn. He bought the Montrose Road property 10 years ago and lived in the existing house there before bulldozing it and building his new house.
Carter calls the three-story, whitewashed brick house “casual Georgian.” He lives mostly on the main level, where there’s a kitchen, dining room, library and master bedroom and bathroom. He said he spends most of his time when he’s at home in the library, where the walls are paneled with reclaimed white oak. Over the fireplace in the room is a portrait of a British royal family member. Carter said he feels like the man in the painting, the brother of George IV, has become an “old friend.”
“I spend most of my time right there,” he said, pointing to a leather chair in the library. “I work hard, and I like to come home, shut the door and curl up with a good book or movie.”
When he feels like reading, there’s no shortage of material. Shelves throughout the house are filled with his favorite history books and biographies, signed cookbooks, a few novels and medical books that belonged to his grandfather, a Conecuh County surgeon.
He enjoys hosting gatherings and parties for friends – as long as he isn’t the one toiling away in his handsome kitchen.
“I don’t have time to cook, but I do love good food,” he said.
He chose the apricot color in the dining room from a similar hue in the library of the historic Boscobel House in New York’s Hudson Valley. The dining room is octagonal, which was a nod to the North Octagonal Room in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Small ledges attached to bookshelves in the room hold lanterns. He said the ledges are similar to ones in a New York apartment that belonged to William and Babe Paley.
Carter consulted with fellow professional Jane Hoke Bynum on the interior of the house but said he had the final say on all decisions. The same was true with the design of his garden.
“It all ties together,” he said.
He was set on having an allée, a straight path often seen in formal French landscape design. His is lined with stone walls with lush ferns overhanging on either side. An old sugar kettle from his family’s farm was converted into a fountain.
“I don’t have flowers – I have no time – and I wanted a dark green look,” he said. “This garden is as simple as I could make it with the help of garden designer Norman Johnson.”
Travel Inspires Him
Carter, a seasoned traveler, brings home inspiration as well as items from his journeys.
“When I go on a vacation, almost everything is work-related,” he said. “I visit destinations that have interesting things for me to see and experience. I believe travel should broaden your horizons.”
Carter believes his own house and those he designs for his clients should be “about comfort – a backdrop for your life.” On his website, he writes that “people have latched on to a memory” when they imagine the house of their dreams.
“A lot of people will say things like, ‘I always loved my grandfather’s farm,’” he said. “Houses are a lot about emotions. I like to find out the emotional part of the house. I take pride in catering to clients. It’s about personalities and listening to the client. It’s also about trust, and I’ve been fortunate to have clients who believed in me.”
While Carter works in places far from Alabama and has friends all over the world, he hasn’t left his beginnings too far behind. As a third-generation member of his Monroeville family, he’s grounded in tradition.
“I had wonderful parents,” he said. “I knew what spoon to use, to stand up when ladies come into a room – things that Southerners know. I’m very aware of being a Southerner and what that means. It scares and intrigues people.”
His background comes with a little added pressure, too.
“People assume I’m going to be interesting,” he said, smiling.
Chances are he doesn’t disappoint them.