Story by Emily Williams • Photos by Lee Walls
When former Vestavia Hills residents Lee and Candice McKinney were talked into looking at a property in Mountain Brook, they weren’t planning for a big move, let alone a major project.
Nevertheless, the home, tucked in the Brookwood Forest area of Mountain Brook atop a mountain, drew them in with one thing you can’t get through renovation: location, specifically a private and expansive property.
“We’re on just under 5 acres here,” Lee said. In addition to the house itself and expansive front and back lawns, the property is bordered by thick wooded areas, which have been good for privacy as well as animal watching.
“We have coyotes here,” Lee said. “Last year, we had a bunch of pups playing in the backyard. We’ve seen as many as a dozen deer.
“I had a turkey hen block the driveway one day,” he said. “So, we do get some wild turkey around here.”
Lee is a lover of animals wild and tame. Led by the example of his father, Roddy McKinney, his love of the natural world has been a huge part of his life through his participation on the board of the Birmingham Zoo.
In addition to the wildlife outside, Lee jokes that the interior of his home is a zoo of its own. The McKinneys and their 4- and 7-year-old daughters share their home with a cat, a hamster and two Bernedoodles, LuLu and Max.
While the property was perfect, the style and layout of the home and both front and back lawns needed some serious remodeling to best accommodate the family’s lifestyle.
The interior of the McKinney home has a clean look. There are a few small pops of color in the furnishings but, for the most part, the walls and floors are clean and white with large windows leaving the focus on the home’s view and the nature that surrounds the property.
When the couple first purchased the home, it was far from the open concept it is now.
The interior of the house was stuck in the past, a mixture of traditional architectural touches as well as dated finishings and numerous interior walls.
Lee noted that the large kitchen that now opens to a den area used to be broken up into eight or nine smaller rooms. Where the kitchen island now ends, there used to be a stairway.
One of the only rooms in the home that the couple left almost untouched was the man cave. The room features a large wooden bar on one end of the room and a seating area.
“When I saw it, I told the architects, ‘If you touch the bar, you’re gone,’” Lee joked.
The walls are covered with items that he has collected over the years, from sports memorabilia to model cars and a street sign that reads “Lee.”
The couple does a lot of entertaining at home, and Candice noted that being able to accommodate a crowd without feeling as if the rooms were crowded was important.
“I’m 38 now, but I was about 35 when we first moved in and I wanted a younger, more modern feel to a home that is older,” Candice said. She admits she isn’t much of a decorator herself, so she relied on the expertise of a decorator to achieve a mixture of modern and vintage furnishings.
“It’s homey, because, of course, we have two little ones,” she said. “It couldn’t be like a museum.”
Meanwhile, the home’s original moldings highlight the home’s history and create a contrast with the decor.
In the dining room, furnishings are minimal – mainly a contemporary dining table surrounded by modern Lucite chairs – leaving the focus on an ornate chandelier that hangs from a concave oval medallion in the ceiling and is surrounded by ornate molding.
Though everything looks chic, as Candice describes, it isn’t so fussy that it can’t withstand playtime with 4- and 7-year-old girls and two large dogs.
“If you want to kick your shoes off and walk around in shorts and a T-shirt, I’m good,” Lee added.
Outdoor Living Space
Outside of opening up the interior, the McKinneys also added a screened-in porch and completely overhauled the backyard.
“The pool used to be in the front yard,” Lee said. “We moved it to the back and filled it in.” The area in the front yard formerly known as the pool is now a garden.
When figuring out how to create a pool in the backyard, the McKinneys had to keep in mind that the house is on a mountain. Therefore, the ground just beneath a layer of soil is solid rock.
Rather than go through the many hoops necessary to blast through the rock with dynamite to make a pool-sized ditch, Lee was given another option.
“We were already doing a retaining wall,” he said. “The option came in to build a bigger retaining wall and build the pool like Noah’s ark.”
Thus, an in-ground pool was created where there was no ground to begin with. Land was built up to accommodate a concrete skeleton for the pool and was then filled in to meet the new retaining wall.
The pool area has been a favorite portion of the home for the McKinney’s daughters, Candice said, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They have definitely been spending a lot of time outside, but especially in the pool.”
Before its transformation, the rest of the back lawn was a three-hole golf course that could be used to play a round of nine holes. According to the McKinneys, the previous owners had two employees who worked full-time maintaining the yards on the property, mainly the golf course, Lee said.
“Lee and I don’t play golf,” Candice said. “So, one thing that I said was I don’t want our backyard to look like there had been a golf course.”
To get the job done, Lee leaned on work experience as well as his volunteer experience.
He is a founder of McKinney Capital, a family-owned investment firm where he works with his parents, Roddy and Janice, and his younger brother, Danny McKinney.
In 2012, McKinney Capital acquired the Vestavia Hills-based Landscape Workshop. As that company has expanded over the years, so has Lee’s landscaping knowledge.
The couple did install an artificial turf putting green in the place of an original green close to the house, in an homage of sorts. The remainder of the old course was turned into a sprawling greenspace, with sand traps replaced by an outdoor living space with a fire pit and a sprawling waterfall feature.
“I happened to be in Texas at the time and saw this little stream on a golf course, and I took a video,” he said. When he returned, he showed the video to his landscaping architects, and they built upon his idea by having the stream spill into a Monet pond filled with water lilies.
“The cool thing is that about 70% of the rocks lining the water feature came from the property,” Lee said.
Near the tree lines that surround the lawn, Lee saw an opportunity to create natural areas.
He wanted to create a space on the property that would help the environment and decided he would include a pollinator garden.
The idea was inspired by his work with the Birmingham Zoo, for which he has served on the board of directors for about seven years. To get the job done, he enlisted the help of his friend Chris Pfefferkorn, president and CEO of the Birmingham Zoo.
“We set up a certified Monarch weigh station at the zoo a while back,” Pfefferkorn said. “So, when Lee was doing his backyard, I got to come out while they were doing a lot of the work. … That’s when he told me what he wanted to do with the pollinator garden.”
When it came time to choose what plants he wanted to use, Lee said he was shocked by the sheer amount of plant varieties he could choose from as well as the variations within each variety.
“There are about 40 different kinds of milkweed alone,” he said.
Pfefferkorn said they used a variety of plants that flower at different times of the year.
“If he put the same thing out there, it would flower once a year for a very short time and then the butterflies and birds, they wouldn’t have the food,” Pfefferkorn said.
According to Lee, he chose such a variety that he has at least one type of plant blooming in the garden from March through October.
The idea was perfectly in line with Pfefferkorn’s mission at the zoo, to inspire passion to conserve the natural world. He was able to provide Lee with information on what kinds of plants were a good food source for the pollinators he was hoping to attract – which are mainly butterflies.
“Lee took it upon himself to put all the pollinating plants he could out there,” Pfefferkorn said. That’s what we try to get people to do. It’s an easy and simple step. He had to put something out there, so why not something that is good for the environment?”
McKinney Supports Zoo Through Hard Times
Serving as the head of the development committee, Lee McKinney has been dubbed one of the Birmingham Zoo’s biggest cheerleaders.
It’s something the zoo has been in great need of over the past few months, support from community members as the zoo had to close because of the coronavirus.
“You can see with Lee and our other board members that everybody cares,” zoo executive Chris Pfefferkorn said. “The members are quick to check in on the zoo operations.”
McKinney was on the board when it hired Pfefferkorn to serve as the zoo’s president and CEO five years ago.
“I moved here from Oregon and had no connection to Alabama,” he said. “I was very fortunate to meet and get to work with people like Lee, and we’ve developed a really great friendship.”
The camaraderie felt on the Birmingham Zoo board and throughout the staff has been especially important over the past few months.
“We’re used to closing the zoo for a couple of days due to bad weather,” Pfefferkorn said. “I’m from Oregon, where we used to shut down the zoo for four to five days because of snow. But you don’t think about closing down for three months.”
While some businesses were able to shut down operations, the zoo doesn’t take a day off.
“We can’t drop our level of animal care,” Pfefferkorn said. “It’s like a hospital, you don’t have doctors and nurses not come in.”
While animal care staff and maintenance workers had to report to the zoo, staff members who could work remotely did so up until it was time to plan for the reopening. That included Pfefferkorn, who limited his time at the zoo to periodic check-ins.
He said it was hard to be away from the facility.
As of June 8, the zoo has reopened to the public with a variety of social distancing measures in place.
Guests follow a one-way path through the exhibits and leave the facility through a designated exit located in the Hugh Kaul Children’s Zoo. In addition, indoor exhibits and facilities including the gift shop and enclosed dining areas have remained closed.
“People have actually been following the changes we put into place very well,” Pfefferkorn said. “We do get some complaints on social media from people who don’t want to wear a mask — and that’s their choice — but we are within the city limits of Birmingham. It’s an ordinance. I can’t tell people not to do it.”
While attendance has not come close to what it was before the pandemic, Pfefferkorn and McKinney said they both hope to see it pick up in the next few weeks.
“We generate about 90% of our total budget every year,” Pfefferkorn said. “The revenue is through people buying tickets, at the gift shop, the rides and restaurants and what have you.”