The house is just off the northern shore of Perdido Bay, the pier extending over the water below. Gentle chatter harmonizes with the lapping of waves on sand in the distance. Inside the house, natural light and varying shades of blue interplay, airily reflecting the exterior world. As kids rush outside, the screen door opens with a creak and then shuts behind them with a satisfying slam. A Baldwin County breeze flutters across the water, ruffling the hair of visitors on the beach and those chatting in the breezeway. Indoors, outdoors — there’s not much difference here. And that’s precisely the point.
Just a few years ago, there was hardly an indoors on the lot to speak of, but the allure of the outdoors was enough of a selling point for the Toombs. When they bought the weekend property nine years ago, it contained a pier on the water and a small boathouse. Thomas Toombs, owner of Black Angus Construction, planned from the start to build on the land, but in the interim, the mostly undisturbed bayside property provided a quiet escape for the family. It gave him and his wife Cariann, director of The Neighborhood School in Daphne, a getaway to decompress from their busy work lives. At night, Thomas would set up a hammock to gaze at the Milky Way, undiluted by streetlamps, and sleep in the true quiet of Perdido Beach nights. During the day, Cariann and their three daughters took the boat out on the Bay for all manner of water sports. “We enjoyed the pier for many years,” says Thomas.
He is no stranger to discovering the beauty of Baldwin County and its coastal appeal, but then again, that’s not a unique story for most people moving to Fairhope. Born in Pensacola, he considers Georgia home as he moved to the state at just 8 years old, attended college and worked his first corporate job there. Then, his company transferred him to Baldwin County. Initially, he and Cariann planned to stay just a few years before Thomas started on his MBA. However, they quickly fell in love with Fairhope and decided to raise a family there. That was over 20 years ago. They have been on the Eastern Shore ever since.
Around the time the Toombs were enjoying days on the pier, designer Suzanne Winston was remodeling a house that she and her husband had relocated from Fairhope to Perdido Beach. Thomas soon learned of the project up the road. Although the pier was typically a place for him to unwind, the news activated the construction part of his brain. It became routine for him to stop by the Winston’s to say hi and see the updated progress. As the remodel concluded, he approached Suzanne, asking if she would be interested in helping him design something similar for his waterside lot. And so, the project began.
Left Thomas spends time fishing and catching crabs off the pier. He regularly enjoys hosting family and friends over for a crab boil or cookout. Right The bay views and shade make the 1950’s gazebo an ideal location to enjoy a meal on the property.
A Home Away from Home
To emphasize the relaxation factor, the look and feel of the Perdido Beach house had to be different from the Toombs’ primary home in Fairhope. Thomas knew exactly what he wanted, telling Suzanne that he planned to take inspiration from the old tobacco barns of the South that had always fascinated him. They also decided that the secondary property should be on the smaller side and harness the assets of the outdoors, from layout to interior design. Thomas also considered his plans to eventually build a bigger house on the property. When finished, the larger house would relegate the beach house to a guest house. In the meantime, he wanted the beach barn to be able to house his family and guests, envisioning summer days by the water and nights spent amongst friends.
The pair reevaluated and refined his vision with each new drawing, bouncing ideas off each other in collaboration. About a hundred drafts later, they landed on a 768-square-foot dogtrot house. A characteristic architectural style originating from Texas up to the Appalachians, dogtrot houses are characterized by two separate living spaces of the house joined by a breezeway. The house’s vernacular style creates cohesion of both look and lifestyle while taking the local area’s natural resources and idiosyncrasies into account.
With the final design in hand, construction began. Thomas took on the dual role of homeowner and contractor, giving him a unique perspective from both vantage points. Being invested from two angles allowed him to execute his designs with a deeper understanding of the end goal — blissful peace and tranquility. Thanks to his penchant for organization, the project only took about six months, even with time off cleaning up and recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Sally, which wiped out the property’s pier that has now been mostly restored.
Left The cozy loft above the living room is an enchanting hideaway for 9-year-old daughter Chelsea and her visiting friends. Right Winston chose the bathroom’s star tile to reflect Toombs’ love of compasses, also evident in the star sconce lights in the living room. In addition, these stars represent the metal five-pointed stars that often adorn barn walls, cohesively tying together the beach barn theme.
Low Maintenance Minimalism
With limited square footage and architecture that emphasizes spending most of the time outdoors, the house is relatively low maintenance (therefore conducive to relaxation). It takes advantage of the natural world, claiming it as a part of the house’s foundation. One side houses a living room, kitchen, bathroom, loft and tiny primary bedroom. The other side is home to a bunkhouse, where guests sometimes stay, as well as a bathroom and laundry room. When Thomas plans to go fishing early in the morning, he spends the night in the bunkhouse to avoid disturbing the rest of the family.
Inside, Suzanne brought together coastal and farmhouse elements to symbolize both elements of the beach barn. “It’s kind of an odd concept having a barn on the beach,” says Suzanne. “It’s not your typical beach house.” Beams, shiplap walls and lush ceilings recall the country feel of barns while the colors stay beachy. The chairs’ white fabric can withstand the wear and tear of wet bathing suits, sand and a dog or two while adding brightness to the room. The pine displayed throughout the house is reminiscent of both barn wood and driftwood, blending the contrasting themes into a homogenous living space that also mirrors its natural surroundings.
Old Gulf Coast Living
You would never know so much as a hurricane ever marred the shores of Perdido Bay when spending time at the Toomb’s beach barn. Family and guests alike get the feeling that this is nothing short of life in Alabama paradise.
Entertaining in classic Gulf Coast fashion was a key criterion that played into the design and construction process. Foreseeing many summers spent by the Bay, Thomas designed an outdoor porch that is about the same size as the living space indoors, giving plenty of room for hosting by the water. The Toombs often invite friends over for cookouts or low-country boils. Kids run along the sand as adults catch up over food and conversation. The breezeway avoids solar heat, making it an optimal space for coastal-cool mealtimes. Scenic views of glistening water don’t hurt, either. When the family stays the weekend — as they do most weekends — Thomas likes to get up in the early morning hours when the world is at its calmest and drink his coffee as he watches the sun slowly edge over the horizon. Once awake, the family typically opts for a nice outdoor breakfast. “The breezeway and the views are my favorite parts of the house,” he says.
Left The breezeway sitting area, complete with furniture from Southern Home Outdoor in Mobile, provides relaxing views, with binoculars from SeeCoast Manufacturing Company in Fairhope poviding an up-close look at the Bay. Right The Bunny Bread painting, created by Doug Renfro, feels laid back and quirky, just like this sleepy little beach town.
Mayberry on the Gulf Coast
What makes summering at the beach house even better is the true small-town feel of Perdido Beach surrounding it. Though Alabama and Florida share Perdido Bay, Perdido Beach is all Alabama’s own. The town, which sits between Soldier Creek and Palmetto Creek a stone’s throw, or about 12 minutes, from Josephine, was only incorporated in 2009. It has just over 500 permanent residents, as well as those who claim Perdido Beach as their getaway destination just as the Toombs do. The result is a relatively undisturbed cove. Children ride bikes on the gravel roads while parents watch, blanketed with peace of mind reminiscent of a bygone era. The Toombs’ young daughter Chelsea plays on the shore and practices guitar in the gazebo. When the Toombs’ oldest two daughters come home from their lives abroad (Caroline teaches in Kuwait and Mary Everett attends college in Scotland), the sand, sea and serenity of the beach barn reconnects them with their Baldwin County roots. “I feel as though the house is the kids’ touchstone to ground themselves before going back out into the busy world,” says Thomas. “To me, it’s Mayberry on the Gulf Coast.”