Bringing Home History

Spider Alley. No, it’s not the title of a Stephen King novel. Paul and Pat Mayer’s Spring Hill home takes its name from the long, narrow backyard that Pat has filled with native plants. The brick front walk includes a round brass marker, which used to advertise the soft drink Grapette on a downtown sidewalk. It reads, “Walk Safely.”

However, the interior of the brick New Orleans-style house is anything but scary. In fact, Pat designed the home, which the couple has lived in since 2005. The Mayers worked with builder Patrick Waller to create their unconventional quarters. Unexpected touches range from the more-than-12-foot-high ceilings to the suspended oak-and-iron staircase. Throughout, salvaged architectural elements acknowledge the past while maintaining the home’s modern feel.

When the couple moved into their new home, they had plenty of material to work with for the interior design. Pat says, “We had a barn in Baldwin County where we stored architectural pieces we had been collecting – including a whole mahogany-paneled room.”

Many of the home’s furnishings even have fascinating Mobile connections. When the Mayers had trouble finding a chandelier to fit the 24-foot-high foyer ceiling, a friend referred them to the Country Club of Mobile, where the ballroom was being redecorated. The ballroom’s former chandelier proved a perfect fit. Pat loves the touch of local history: “I can imagine all the generations of Mobilians who have danced beneath it.” 

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An ornamental chandelier from the Country Club of Mobile found a new home at the Mayers’ place.

The couple has found practical uses for their salvaged pieces. In the library, which Pat calls her “playroom, ”  a rolling ladder rescued from a now defunct B. Dalton bookstore helps to reach floor-to-ceiling bookcases. In one corner sits a little wooden chair from downtown’s old Haunted Bookshop. Pat had seen the chair in the store for years and had taken note of the sign saying it was reserved for the ghost. When the bookshop closed, Pat and Paul bought the chair at auction. “We’ve had it for 22 years, and it’s still reserved for the ghost, ” Pat laughs.

In another corner of the library, ticking away, rests one of her most prized possessions – the clock from the old Mobile Infirmary. When Pat was a child, her mother was a patient in the hospital. Pat wasn’t allowed to go to her mother’s room, so she sat in the lobby, staring at the tall mahogany case clock: “I just sat there watching time go by.” Many years later, Paul saw the clock in a lot with three others and bought the bunch. He gave it to Pat with the admonition to “watch happy times go by.”

Just down the hall from the library, the master bedroom contains a rosewood dresser made by 19th century New Orleans furniture maker Prudent Mallard. The piece features elaborate carvings surrounding an oval mirror. Pat, who says “it’s the only piece of Mallard’s I’ve ever seen outside a museum, ” found it sitting on a back porch at a Mobile antique dealer’s estate sale.

A vintage dentist’s cabinet and a china cabinet replace conventional built-ins in the adjoining bathroom. Since the bathroom door is wider than average, the Mayers commissioned Tony Bowen to combine two narrow French doors to fit the opening. Its  transom is made from a piece of leaded glass that Pat found years ago.

The capacious kitchen was designed around a massive cutting board top that came from the old Woolworth’s store in Mobile. It was incorporated into a  4-by-8-foot island. “The top had about a billion knife cuts, ” Pat says. “We had it sanded down, but it’s still marked by history. It also had flour everywhere, since it was where they made biscuits.” Over the island are green industrial looking lights, which hail from The Little Turf, a corner pub that was once located in Downtown. The lights were missing parts and had been thrown out when the Mayers rescued them. “We feel that we saved part of The Little Turf.” 

Lights rescued from The Little Turf corner pub lend local character to the family’s kitchen. 

Another piece from Downtown has a more elegant origin. A pedestal table with an ornate iron base and a round marble top came from the old Battle House.

Upstairs, the landing features another piece from the Country Club of  Mobile, an old coin-operated gaming table. The Mayer grandchildren enjoy playing in this area, which has access to a balcony running the length of the house.

Across from the landing, an odd-sized door from a Midtown schoolhouse opens into son Ben’s room. Although Paul isn’t quite sure which school the door once graced, he notes its connection to Alabama’s musical history: “I got that door from Wayne Dupree,  who operated the Virginia Street Wrecking Company. He was the adopted father of Jett Williams, Hank Williams’ daughter.”

Down the hall from Ben’s room is Paul’s “playroom, ” his study. An elaborate door from a European monastery opens to a less than monastic decor, featuring a bearskin rug, a collection of German beer steins and Al Capone’s clock.

A massive oak display case from the old Van Antwerp pharmacy store is a handy repository for Paul’s collections.  Getting the case home wasn’t easy; it’s so large it had to be hauled into place before the staircase was built.

Because of their links to the past, all the pieces are precious to the Mayers. “We feel we are preserving a part of Mobile, ” Pat says.

Man Cave Memorabilia

So what is Al Capone’s clock doing in Paul’s study? It’s simple – sort of. When Paul bought that lot of three antique clocks to get the Mobile Infirmary clock, he found he had purchased the former timepiece, above left, of the Chicago mob boss. The massive grandfather (or in this case, godfather) clock was carved in the Black Forest of Germany with figures representing angels on its top, saints at its midsection, and at its base, devils. Pat says looking at the clock is “almost like going from heaven to hell.” Some of Scarface Al’s business associates no doubt had that same sensation. 

A few feet from the Capone clock are the study’s wooden room dividers, center, which have a unique history; they came from New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

The museum disposed of the dividers during a remodeling project, and they eventually found their way to an architectural antiques shop, where Paul found them. Dating from the turn of the 20th century, the dividers were used to hang the works of Picasso and other notables. Now the beautifully crafted wooden walls are used to separate Paul’s study from his music room.

Paul has maintained a lifelong interest in music. (Once, to cheer up Pat, he summoned a Dixieland brass band.) He takes great joy in his two Martin guitars from the 19th century, which both have Mobile connections. Paul found one in an attic and the other under a bed, in a case made to look like a coffin to deter prying eyes. The circa-1850s guitar, above, had been in the same family since its creation.

text by Kathie Farnell

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