Around the Mediterranean

It’s not just Italy which has coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. Our tour of architectural influences on our neighborhoods’ architecture needs to take us at least along the coast from Italy through France to Spain. The landscape is very similar, with steep slopes running down to the sea and the vernacular architecture from country to country sharing much along the coast. These influences lend a rich, and very different, flavor to our early twentieth century buildings.

Of course, we have real Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States. It is principally found in California’s mission buildings, and in Florida, where St. Augustine’s González-Alvarez House is the earliest structure we might call a building in the eastern U.S. And, to file away for when you need a truly arcane bit of information, there is a Spanish-built earthen fort, Ft. Apalachicola, in Alabama, on the Chattachochee River. It is interesting, even if it looks pretty much like a very regular pile of dirt.

Mediterranean influence entered the American architectural lexicon in the early 20th century through the Panama-California Exhibition in 1915, held at Balboa Park in San Diego. Like the Columbian Exhibition before it, the layout and the major pieces were designed by one architect, in this case Bertram Goodhue. This exhibition gave us the building blocks of Mediterranean style: red clay-tile roofs, highly ornamented doorways, tri-part round-arched windows, elaborate chimney tops, ornamental iron work, arcades, and a special integration of outdoor and interior spaces. The steep hillsides of the Mediterranean often lead to narrow houses that ramble along the hillside. In our climate, this offers the opportunity to achieve good cross ventilation by putting windows on both sides.

Besides Goodhue, another famous practitioner of the style was Addison Mizner, who, although a Californian by birth, made his name with the beautiful villas of Boca Raton and other Florida cities. These continue to influence what we recognize as Florida-style architecture today.

I’m not sure of the name of these handsome column capitals, definitely from the Italian Renaissance and perhaps from S. Maria Dei Miracoli in Venice? I am sure some more well-traveled colleague will help us out. The limestone ones in relief closest to the arch are particularly handsome.

The first house I’ll discuss is one of the best pieces of Montgomery architecture of all time, but you can’t see it very well from the street. At the corner of Perry and Felder, look to the west. The Baldwin house, discussed last time as an example of the Florentine Renaissance, will be on your right, and the house locally known as the “Pickle Palace” will be on your left. When the Whitfield family’s pickle production across south Alabama was in its heyday, they built this two-story, narrow house with the red tile roof rambles.

From Perry, you only get brief glimpses of the five leaded glass, arcaded windows of the dining room in the middle of the facade, but the entry is clearly visible. Marble stairs flow from the street to a projecting entrance porch which has a large portal arch flanked by engaged columns. Enter the arch and you can continue to the front door, dark wood with a half-round transom above, or turn to the right and follow the open porch along the front of the house, past a crenelated tower, to a matching projecting porch at the end of the facade. Above the entry porch is a window with a false balcony that has decorative ironwork.

The landscape is integrated into the house, with doorways and windows offering views to the gardens. A walled garden hides the swimming pool from view. I was in the house years ago, and my one clear memory is of the beamed ceiling in the dining room, with a wonderful decorative painting scheme, pulling all the colors from the colored glass in the arcaded windows into the interior of the home. It is certainly one of the best dining rooms in Midtown. The current owners completed an extensive rehab of the house about 20 years ago, and have set a high standard for care ever since. I have always assumed that this house, and the next, were designed by Frank Lockwood. My friend James Fuller tells me there was a very similar house on the northwest corner of Norman Bridge and Felder, where a modern apartment complex now stands.

The lot almost appears to be an Italian hillside, and the landscaping carefully composed to reinforce the Mediterranean feel of the house.

Just a few blocks away, on the corner of Hull and Winthrop Court, is another of the really fine examples of Mediterranean style. Only the projecting living room with its three arched french doors opening to the terrace is a single story. The remainder of the house works with the slope of the lot and cleverly includes a basement level on the left, and, almost hidden from view, a two-story front projecting gable on the right. Of particular note are the elaborate chimneys, each with its own little red-tile roof. Note how the architect addressed both streets on the corner, with a romantically winding stair starting up the hillside on Winthrop and turning to the Hull-facing front door, and an enlivened two-story section on Winthrop boasting a french window and blind balcony. I also love the tiny built-in garage.

The current owner has a wonderful black-and-white photograph of the original living room, furnished in high-style for the 19th century, with Victorian rosewood gentlemen’s chairs, Empire side tables, and a Victorian sofa. The mismatch with the architecture is pretty amusing, but I suppose that you didn’t get new furniture just because you got a new house, no matter how different the styles. Current residents belong on the historic home wall of honor for their care of this house and their beautifully appropriate front yard and rear garden.

Garden walls, plant selection, and neutral color help this house look as if it belongs to the site. The chimney pots (which I think are part of the new work) are wonderfully appropriate.

For the final example in the “landmark” category, we have to go to Thomas Avenue, but perhaps there is time to stop at Café Louisa on the way for some coffee and a chocolate espresso cookie. On the northeast corner of Thomas and Augusta, look for the round shallow planter at the street. This house is eclectic in its expression. It has the long, narrow overall shape of the Mediterranean house, but a tower that marks the turn of a wing.

Do I sense a cleaner look that reflects the effects of the modernist movement? At the end of his career, Bertram Goodhue’s work took on this modern look. The second story porch is also unusual, a feature seen in a variant that McAlester’s Field Guide to American Houses calls the “Monterey house.” Some of what we see now is the product of a renovation in the early ‘90s, when the owners added more garden walls and louvered shutters while closing in the second story porch. This newer work is not exactly consistent with good preservation practice, as it substantially changed the front elevation of the house. Among other things, the preservation gurus really wants us to respect the front of the house. One of the things I really like about the new design is the garden walls that really ground the house to the site.

The capitals in the top of the wall keep the wall from being monolithic and boring. Note the subtle detail in the shape of the porch, mimicking the shape of column capitals in the stucco.

On to Midtown’s smaller houses! Most of the house plan books from the 1920s and 1930s had examples of smaller houses in the Mediterranean style, although they certainly weren’t as popular as bungalow and English Tudor-style cottages in the South. Aladdin and Sears both offered a Mediterranean style in their pre-cut kits. The kits arrived on a rail car, ready for assembly on your lot.

In Birmingham, there is a whole neighborhood called Hollywood (you can look down into it just as the Red Mountain Expressway dips into Mountain Brook Village) that is full of these Mediterranean influenced houses. Of our local models, I like one on the west side of the lower Cloverdale Park for its sheer exuberance. It has a mostly flat roof with a shaped parapet (the wall that sticks up on the top) that is capped with a clay tile cap. A boxy stoop covers the front door on a mostly open porch, and the whole front facade is open, with windows and french doors on both sides of the front facade. One of the things Goodhue said about Mediterranean houses is that they should look like they grew organically across the hillside, and this house, with its ins-and-outs, seems to meet that criteria. The chimney is nicely proportioned, with a terra cotta moulded plaque embedded above the shoulder.

Near the heart of Old Cloverdale, on the corner of Felder and Girard, is another gem. It, too, has a flat roof, although the projecting front gable on the left has some shape to it. Below there is a wonderful three-part arched window. With the entrance more or less in the center, one walks between the curved cheek walls and up the stairs, through a portal to the front door straight ahead. To the right is a terrazzo paved open terrace with French doors opening from the living room. Far to the left, next to the thin Italian cypress, there is a little niche-like opening which either needs an Italian statue fragment or a garden gnome.

I want to rip up this sign designed to warn us of an upcoming stop. It’s uphill. How fast did they think we would be going?

As the owners of this house are friends of mine, I can tell you about the interior. The dining room and living room have the beautiful arched ceilings that were a popular feature of this style. The ceilings give a gracious sense of scale to the front rooms. Very simple marquetry further defines the floors in these public rooms. The side door on Girard enters the kitchen. The kitchen floor is terrazzo, to match the front porch. A new screened porch was added all the way across the back a few years ago, large enough for a fair weather dining room. We eat there in all but the coldest and hottest weather – all the better to enjoy the view into the walled garden.

A previous owner had removed some decorative details from the house, including a carport and garage apartment, both of which hardly seem possible on this small lot. The new porch and redefined garden add to the livability of this house, and more than make up for any “historic”loss.

Despite a rather busy location, this house has a kind of restful charm that offers respite from work and traffic.

On to Capitol Heights, to Madison Avenue and the Capitol Heights lions, for a house that departs from the mold a little. This house neither rambles along its site nor has a flat roof, and no tiles grace the cross gable. While most Mediterranean houses have no eave overhang, this house has a deep one with nicely shaped rafter tails. And yet, something about the house definitely says Mediterranean. It’s probably the big, arched opening on the porch and the very nice half-round terrace with the black iron railing in front that conveys this feeling. Those details, along with the cream stucco walls, give this house a definite Mediterranean flavor. The side porch, with its very nice square detailing and, used to be screened. I can’t help but wish the current tinted glass away.

Am I correct is guessing that this house once presented a completely different character? That rounded stucco chimney is the only solid clue. The big window may be the result of a remodel.

The Mediterranean style has not been as resilient as some others, and there are a couple of houses in the neighborhood where the influence has been remodeled away. I was intrigued by the large louvered opening on the front gable of this house on Ridge almost to Fairview for years before I noticed the shaped stucco chimney. Suddenly, it made sense! Here is a Mediterranean house covered in clapboard, ending up with the feel of a garden cottage, or porter’s lodge, or something. I’d love to see a photograph showing what this house looked like as a Mediterranean villa or Mission-style house.

More reading? There are any number of books on Addison Mizner and his “Boca Rococo,” but why not try the one written by Mizner himself in 1928, The Florida Architecture of Addison Mizner, now available in paperback for less than $20.00. Even more is written about Bertram Goodhue: A recent work by Romy Wyllie is Bertram Goodhue, His Life and Residential Architecture , or examine his roots in the Gothic movement with St. Bartholomew’s Church in the City of New York, by Smith. Goodhue was in practice for many years with Ralph Adams Cram, the designer of our own Church of the Ascension. The folks at Capitol Book and News will be happy to order any of these books for you.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

 

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  1. Jay Croft says:

    Another magnificent and informative article! Thank you.

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