Those of us who live in Midtown’s Garden District, Old Cloverdale or Cloverdale-Idlewild neighborhoods love “old house quirk.” We admire built-ins with glass paned windows, transoms, elaborate molding and period tile. But sometimes we can be a bit standoffish when it comes to more modern design. Some people love mixing midcentury furnishings with their hundred-year-old rooms; others adore modern design but simply can’t find a place for it in their old homes. In some circles around Midtown Montgomery, we’ve gotten used to thinking of quirk as having a very particular dimension and time period, somewhere between 1880 and 1935.
Montgomery, it’s time to radically expand your sense of awesome. Sure, you could cozy up to original warped windows, plaster walls and swoon-worthy chair rail. Or you could live like a supervillain from a James Bond movie right here in Midtown. They call it “The Rock House,” and it’s pretty much like no home east of Palm Springs. A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to walk through the place with owner Claudia Smith.
From the street, you might be fooled into thinking this is like the other homes in the neighborhood – sure, perhaps the stacks of white stones accenting the facade would give pause, but rock accents aren’t that uncommon around here. It’s when you walk in the front door you realize that you’re about to experience something truly different.
First things first: the home is a circle, laid out around a beautiful pool (complete with a “drinking shelf”). This means all the rooms are uncommonly bright, with wall-sized windows bending around the house’s inner core. Each bedroom has pool access, adding to the suspicion that you are at a spa rather than at a Montgomery home. In general, the rooms are laid out in the home’s inner ring, with an outer hallway arcing to connect them. This outer hallway may itself have more storage space than all the homes on our Cloverdale-Idlewild street put together. But you can’t see the closets (which can be lit from the inside, creating a warm glow) until they’re pointed out. This is typical of the details at the Rock House – hidden chairs, carefully placed security features, dressers that fit into bedroom closets – things you didn’t know you needed until you see them in action. Those midcentury designers were onto something.
The Rock House is made from two basic materials: rough Sylacauga marble (the smooth kind can be seen at the Lincoln Memorial as well as in our own state capitol building) and mahogany. The marble is stunning and sparkling white and a remarkable architectural feature all by itself. Next to the rich mahogany that lines the walls, the rocks should feel stark, but instead feel luxurious and comfortable – especially when you see them in a fireplace or lining the home’s four showers. The showers! They are all slightly different in size and angle, but each feels like the kind of retreat that should, if all were right in the world, end in a cooling cucumber drink.
When they took a chance on the Rock House, owners Claudia and Roger Smith knew they were getting something different. They also knew it would be a bit of a challenge to update the home while keeping its idiosyncratic charm. They have hundreds of pictures documenting the home’s transformation from midcentury chic to new century fabulous.
“We tried to take a house built in the 1960s and bring it into this century,” said Claudia. “We wanted to be true to the original architectural style while updating it for modern needs and comforts, using modern technology and methods.”
Among the changes the Smiths made was closing in an attached carport to create an additional living area and home theater. They kept the original concrete floors in the living area, extending them into the kitchen with concrete counters. Cork tile keeps the hallway comfortable and stylish, with sisal carpeting in some bedrooms adds warmth. Although the Smiths kept the aluminum siding accents around the home exterior, they rotated the siding to a vertical alignment for better water drainage.
“It has been very liberating owning this house,” says Claudia. “When you live in a house like this you get to do whatever you want – it’s not tied to conventions because there simply is no other Rock House in Montgomery. I’ve found that I don’t get caught up in traditions and trends with my home. We’ve blended antique and modern, there are no rules or expectations, the house is one of a kind.”
It really is impossible to overstate the effect this house has on you. After seeing it, I raved to everyone I met about how lush and spectacular it is. I was also surprised by how family-friendly it is – you don’t normally think of a modernist house like this feeling homey for children, but the Smiths’ three children have evidently loved the place (and had wildly popular parties there). With four bedrooms and four bathrooms, you’d expect the place to feel cavernous, but the layout somehow manages to make every space seem intimate and warm.
And now the Rock House, perhaps one of the most amazing works of art in our whole fair city, is now on the market for only the second time ever. The Smiths are off to their next design challenge, building a new home, and saying goodbye to the Rock House. We’re not sure who will buy the home, but we’d like to formally put our names on the shortlist for the new owners’ housewarming party.