Comfort & Joy
Neighbors welcome you into historic homes decorated with holiday charm for annual tour
By Patrice Stewart, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily
The antique mantel mirror at the Garnett-Smith home on Oak Street Northeast reflects light from the crystals in the chandelier. Twin trees stand in front of the windows of the home, which is on the Historic Decatur Christmas Tour on Saturday.
Betsy Smith always wanted to own an old house with character like her childhood home in Cincinnati.
In 2006 Smith was living in Hampton Cove outside Huntsville, and visited Decatur to watch her son play baseball. As she drove through Old Decatur, she spotted a house that had a “For Sale by Owner” sign in the yard and quickly fell in love.
“When I walked in, I just knew I had to have this house,” said Smith.
Now she is busy decorating her three antique mantels and fireplaces on Oak Street in Old Decatur, one of the city’s two historic neighborhoods. She is positioning Old World Santas and hanging fresh garland to prepare for guests Saturday from 3 to 8 p.m. during the Historic Decatur Christmas Tour.
The 1887 Garnett-Smith House, which had already spent 75 years under the ownership of a family of Smiths, got its old name back in the deal. Most houses in Decatur’s historic areas have hyphenated names of the original and current owners.
The original owner at 618 Oak St. N.E. was W.W. Garnett, who owned and operated a grocery store on Bank Street. The store is gone now, while the house thrived through many changes but only four owners in 112 years.
“It is very unusual for a house to have only four owners in that time span, and I was excited when I found that out,” Smith said.
The earlier Smith family purchased the house in the 1920s and enclosed two side porches to create two new bedrooms and bathrooms. Sisters who inherited the house rented out the rooms and also moved the front door around the corner to Vine Street.
In 1993, Julian and Ann Price bought the house from the last of those Smiths and oversaw major renovations, replacing the roof, plumbing and electrical, enclosing a porch off the kitchen and making other changes.
Their extensive work left little for Betsy and Dennis Smith to do after they moved in with their teens, Meghan and Max, in July 2006.
Their main additions recently are new wallpaper, chandelier and shutters in the downstairs guest bedroom, where a Christmas tree features their collection of White House ornaments from the time they lived in Washington. Dennis Smith worked in the White House Office of Management and Budget in 1994-95; now he commutes to Research Park as project manager for Millennium Engineering.
They are looking forward to sharing the house with Christmas tour visitors.
“Everybody kept saying, ‘Please open it for the tour, because everybody wants to see it and the house has never been on the tour,’ ” Smith said.
This year she relegated Meghan’s Wizard of Oz decorations and Max’s baseball ornaments to their rooms upstairs, which will not be open for the tour, and created more elegant trees downstairs. The tree in the front study is done entirely in silver, while twin trees flank the mirrored mantel in the dining room.
“The kitchen look will be more whimsical, casual and comfortable, and we’re hoping to get a Santa mannequin into our clawfoot bathtub,” said Smith.
Some decorations, such as hand-blown glass and Russian ornaments, are borrowed from friend Pam Marthaler, who used to own a shop in Decatur and had plenty of extras in her attic. Also mingling with the Smiths’ decorations on trees, mantels and sideboards are some items loaned by Gloria Arthur of Bank Street Antiques.
The Smiths have put up fresh cedar garland, bows and a lighted wreath on the upstairs balcony over the front door, which was returned to Oak Street some years back. But she called on Ross Railey to create professional floral designs for the front door and dining room table as tour time nears.
Smith is familiar with the holiday home tour in Hampton Cove, but she likes the Decatur tour better and has served as a hostess in a tour home a couple of times.
“I think the Decatur tour is a lot more comfortable and inviting, and not so intimidating,” she said. “Everybody is so warm and welcoming when you go into the tour houses in Decatur.”
The Smith house is one of three that will be open Saturday in the Old Decatur district, while two houses in the Albany Historic District can be toured. Two public buildings and three churches also will participate (see list on E1).
In the Albany neighborhood, the Malone-Sandlin House at 417 Jackson St. S.E. was on the tour once in the 1980s. Steve and Carol Sandlin, who have owned the house since 1976, remodeled the kitchen over the summer and agreed to open the house for the holiday tour again.
Originally constructed in 1888 by the Malone family as a two-story, four-square house with a boxy design, the house has seen many renovations over its 121 years. The Sandlins display photographs showing their house through the years.
Two other owners had the house before it was bought in the 1930s by Welsh Dinsmore, who owned Dinsmore Furniture in Decatur. The Sandlins bought it from the Dinsmores’ grandson and began a restoration project that has spanned more than 30 years so far.
“It was interesting, because each time we pulled the carpet up, we could see where the house had been added onto because the floor was different,” said Carol Sandlin.
They have enclosed porches and added to the width of the house, and they finished the attic to add a bedroom, bathroom, playroom and storage. Then they gutted the kitchen and added new lighting, tile and cherry cabinets.
“I like to cook, and this makes it easier,” she said, pointing out additions like an overhead cookbook shelf.
The kitchen has stained-glass panels that originally opened onto a porch that has been closed in, and the Sandlins added more stained-glass windows on the stairway and in the living room.
The house is furnished with antiques that have been in the family of Steve Sandlin, a pharmacist, since the early 1800s, along with items such as the dining table from England that can easily seat a dozen.
Tour-goers will see their collections of decorative Old World Nutcrackers, Byers’ Choice handcrafted carolers, music boxes and nesting Santas. Angels march the length of the burgundy and gold runner on the dining room table amid the Lenox Holiday china.
Their family Christmas tree is filled with ornaments collected from their travels, University of Alabama ornaments, and owls and other items belonging to daughters Allison and Mary Katherine.
Watch for the front porch with a child’s sled and gift-wrapped boxes displayed on the porch swing.
If you go
Ten houses, public buildings and churches will be open from 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday during the Historic Decatur Christmas Tour in the Old Decatur and Albany districts.
Talks, music, refreshments and carriage rides will be part of the event, too. This annual event showcases the outdoor lighting and decorations at many other homes in what is considered one of the largest collections of Victorian and early 20th century craftsman and bungalow houses in Alabama.
Malone-Sandlin House, 417 Jackson St. S.E.
Murray-Cole House, 507 Eighth Ave. S.E.
Garnett-Smith House, 618 Oak St. N.E.
Gray-Higgins House, 211 Vine St. N.E.
Mitchell-Godbey House, 204 Canal St. N.E.
Old State Bank, 925 Bank St. N.E.
Carnegie Visual Arts Center, 207 Church St. N.E.
First Presbyterian Church, 701 Oak St. N.E.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, 202 Gordon Dr. S.E.
Emmanuel Church International, 400 Grant St. S.E.
Refreshments: 3-7 p.m., St. John’s Episcopal Church
Carriage rides: 4-8 p.m., $10 per person, leaving from Carnegie Visual Arts Center and Delano Park tennis courts
Speakers: Both at 3 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church
Lee Sentell, state director of tourism, will talk about the 2010 emphasis, “The Year of Small Towns and Downtowns”
Ross Railey, floral designer, will give holiday decorating tips with a demonstration
5 p.m., Three Sopranos with carols of the season, First Presbyterian Church,
6-7:30 p.m., Choir music and open house, Emmanuel Church International
3-8 p.m., Carillon Christmas music, First Presbyterian Church and Westminster Presbyterian Church
$15 per person, or $10 each for groups of 10 and up, available in advance at many local businesses plus Decatur-Morgan County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 350-2028 or 800-524-6181. On tour day, tickets will be available from noon to 7 p.m. at the Old State Bank, Carnegie Visual Arts Center and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
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