By Donna Cornelius
A stately Redmont Park house will be one of the high points of the Independent Presbyterian Church’s Holiday House Tour, and that’s not just because the red brick house is a beautiful blend of the old and the new.
The house’s perch gives homeowners Susan and John Vawter a sweeping perspective of downtown Birmingham. Rooms at the back of the house overlook a swimming pool, a sloping backyard and their historic neighborhood.
“We wanted a house with a view,” Susan said. “This has one of the city, so even better.”
The Vawters first saw the house in 2015 but weren’t able to call it home until the fall of 2017. They had to wait about a year for the previous owner to be ready to sell it, and renovations took about 18 months.
“When we moved in, the house was still a work in progress, so we had to stay in the guest house for a while,” Susan said.
She and John were determined to preserve as much of the house’s original character as possible.
Dr. Thomas Martin built the red brick house in 1927. Architects on the job from Miller, Martin & Lewis also designed Avondale School, the Birmingham Public Library, many Birmingham-Southern College buildings and the University of Alabama’s iconic Denny Chimes. The house’s English architecture with some Italian Renaissance touches gives it a classic exterior that has stood the test of time.
To make the changes they wanted, the Vawters turned to Nequette Architecture & Design of Birmingham.
“We had to scratch our heads and say, how can we make the house work for us?” John said.
Because they have a large family – six grown children plus grandchildren – the couple needed ample accommodations for family gatherings.
“One thing many older houses are missing is a comfortable den,” John said. “There was an outdoor terrace that we enclosed to add a family room. That was Louis Nequette’s idea.”
The family room, which sits atop a carport, is spacious and filled with light thanks to its many windows. It’s one of the house’s most-used spaces.
“I threw a baby shower with 66 guests, and we had enough room to open the presents here,” Susan said. “We congregate in this room for Christmas. There’s plenty of seating on the couches, chairs and windowsills.”
Another change involved replacing one of the house’s most dramatic original elements: a graceful, floating staircase that rises from the foyer to the house’s top floor.
“The original staircase had been torn out, and this one mimics the one that was there originally,” Susan said.
Under the stairs, an alcove is the perfect spot for a grand piano.
“My brother is a concert pianist, and we like having the piano in case he visits and can play for us,” Susan said.
Other renovations enhanced the house without sacrificing its decades-old charm.
“We enlarged the master bedroom closets, put a window between French doors in the living room to open up the view, and added a copper awning over the front elevation to break up the façade,” John said.
Susan is an avid cook, so one of her favorite rooms is the kitchen. It’s bright and cheerful with white marble countertops and subway tile. There’s an expansive Wolf range and a colorful display of cookbooks, which Susan said she uses more for inspiration than instruction.
“This kitchen is a lot of fun to cook in,” she said.
Few additions were needed in the room except for large cabinets that serve as a pantry and floating shelves to give the space a neo-modern flavor. Although there’s an elegant dining room nearby, Susan said their kitchen table is where they most like to eat.
Also on the main level are Susan’s library, with charcoal walls punctuated with a fluffy white throw and pillows on the sofa plus white chairs near the fireplace; the living room, which is airy and has those spectacular city views; and John’s study, decorated with a pair of antique Scottish hunting horns and artwork featuring wild turkeys.
Throughout the house, designer Liz Hand Woods captured the Vawters’ desire for a lovely yet user-friendly interior. Light and dark colors, a mix of contemporary pieces and antiques, and personal touches such as books and family photos combine to make the house a true home.
“We wanted our house to be cozy, inviting and livable,” Susan said. “Liz is so talented and captured exactly what we wanted. She created a soft, calming effect that begins when you walk into the house.”
Outside, Falkner Gardens designed a parterre garden. Otherwise, the grounds have remained largely unchanged over the years.
Tour guests will see festive decorations by Leah Hazzard, who decorates the house for the holidays and creates floral arrangements for special occasions.
“We love pretty ornaments, and we like white lights,” Susan said. “We like to keep the decorations as part of the rooms – pretty and casual.”
She said she and John are happy to be part of this year’s Holiday House Tour, which is set for Dec. 14 and 15.
“We believe in philanthropy and wanted to help support the church,” Susan said.