Grandfathered Inn: A Family Bay House Renovation

Builder Robert Brown finds that renovating a classic third-generation Bay house is a labor of love, a walk down memory lane and a tug-of-war between the past and the present.

Bay house exterior
The Bay house, pictured before Robert Brown’s purchase.

Gordon “Papa” Smith was a maker, through and through. As the president of Smith’s Bakery, founded by his father Gordon “Boss” Smith, Papa made bread that sustained his generation of Mobilians. As a father, he made a haven for his children on the shores of Mobile Bay, a classic Bay house that stands today in testament to a former way of life. As a craftsman, toiling in a small garage on the property, he made the Adirondack chairs, tables and the porch swing that adorned the home. 

Papa Smith didn’t need much: a pipe, a brackish breeze drifting in from the Bay, his grandchildren at his knee and a Braves game on the transistor radio. These things suited him just fine. As the years passed, the hurricanes came and went, the wharves were washed away and rebuilt and Papa Smith’s children — then grandchildren — grew up, as children and grandchildren tend to do. The house, as photographs testify, changed little. 

Robert Brown says he was one of those knee-dwelling grandchildren, made to use the outdoor shower around back to wash off the mud and Bay before being allowed back in the house. Today, the 49-year-old is himself a maker; since 1998, Brown has worked as a home builder and renovator on the Eastern Shore. But his latest project is something altogether different for the veteran builder. In July, Brown purchased the old Bay house outright from a collection of cousins, with the intent to renovate the once-thriving summer escape into a home suitable for his family of five.

On this spring morning, the property is akin to a construction site. Brown steps over deep tire tracks of orange puddles. Heavy equipment hums around the corner. When it was decided the house would be sold, Brown and his cousins nearly resigned themselves to the fact that the outdated home, once outside of family control, would be demolished. His subsequent decision to purchase it was almost as much of a surprise to himself as it was to his extended family.

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Builder Robert Brown stands in the living room of the Bay house built by his grandfather. Photo by Matthew Coughlin

“My main objective is to save the house,” he says, sitting outside its back door. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

The space that was once “Papa’s Workshop” remains, where nuts and bolts lived in tiny glass jars and grandchildren knew to return a tool to the exact hook they found it on. Brown pauses at the doorframe and points to a notch in the wood, evidence of a childhood accident. “I was coming through this door pushing my buddy in the wharf cart, and that little nick right there is where the hub of the wheel caught. The handle hit and knocked my two front teeth out. Every time I walk by here, I have a flashback.”

This offhand story of dental misfortune speaks volumes about the home and about the tightrope Brown walks while renovating it, where every scratch and blemish tells a story, like memories in braille. This challenge, bringing the house into the 21st century without compromising its place in family history, isn’t lost on Brown. He might not get all of the nuts and bolts exactly where Papa would like them, but he’s intent on getting it close.

Brown’s grandmother Ruth is often remembered for her belief that “the house is never happier than when it’s full of people,” as evidenced by this large family photo from around 1963. Papa is visible in the front row with two grandchildren in his lap. Photo courtesy Cathy Huetteman

Relic of yesteryear

Papa Smith’s two-story home stands today as one of the last vestiges of classic Bay living. Built three miles south of the Grand Hotel in 1947 by a man named Porter Boast (who would later be hired to work for the bakery), and somewhat designed by Papa’s wife Ruth, the home was constructed of longleaf pine and cypress, both rot-resistant woods. Though the house has flooded twice in its lifetime, during Frederic and Katrina, its wooden bones absorbed the watery punch like a prize-fighter and lived to fight another round.

Grandmother Ruth, in another prescient decision, wanted the home to be surrounded on three sides by a wide screened-in porch. In a beautiful written tribute to the home, Caitlin Huetteman, a great-granddaughter of Papa Smith, describes, “The house is like one large porch, with each room connecting to the next via old wooden doors that have expanded from the heat so many times that they no longer fully close.” The first floor “has many bedrooms, named after the kid who slept there in those first summers, while the second floor is full of little alcoves, providing no privacy but plenty of opportunity to whisper with your cousins in the middle of the night.”

Caitlin’s mother Cathy remembers the nicknames Papa assigned his grandchildren: names like Little Bitty Buddy, Nook, Gorgeous. “But oh my gosh, if you were running up from the wharf, you better not come storming through the living room when the golf was on and he was sitting in his chair,” she remembers with amusement. “You got in big trouble.”

Leading a tour of the home, Brown pauses in the dining room and considers its wall of window panels. He remembers how the adults would pop out the bottom row of panels, hose off the room and watch as the water carried sandy footprints down the sloping floor and disappeared outside. 

Brown is full of such memories as a child of the Eastern Shore. “My mom had four siblings, so each got a couple of weeks to come over with their families,” he explains. “We’d come over and spend several weeks here every summer. This was our summer camp. I was very fortunate to be able to spend so much of my childhood on the Bay.”

By day, Brown and his siblings puttered around in a Stauter boat, careful to stay within the boundaries mandated by the grownups. At night, with no air conditioning in the house, the wraparound porch offered the best opportunity to catch a breath of cool air; Brown’s family all slept on the southside porch, carried off to sleep by the breeze and the rhythmic drone of crickets and tree frogs.

After graduating from Fairhope High School, Brown joined the Army and was deployed to Saudi Arabia for six months during the first Gulf War. Upon returning home, he enrolled at Auburn, graduated in 1998 and began dating his high school sweetheart Monteigne. The couple’s wedding reception was held at the old Bay house, their nuptial cake placed on the 13-foot table that was, and still is, the main fixture of the dining room. It’s no coincidence that Papa had the table built of white ash — the same wood used for baseball bats.

After college, Brown partnered with Fairhope’s Cliff Pitman to form Pitman Brown Building Company, where his main focus has been the construction of high-end custom homes in Baldwin County. 

All the while, the Bay home remained. After Papa and Ruth died, the home’s ownership transferred to their children, then their children. Brown was one of 12 cousins who shared ownership, and when the decision was made to sell the house outside of the family, he was motivated to find a way to ensure the old-fashioned home wouldn’t be sold, demolished and replaced with a glittering new construction.

“I think God puts you in places at certain times for a reason, and I think me being in the industry that I’m in, and especially building right here between the Grand Hotel and Highway 1 for the last couple of years, kind of honed me in and said, ‘Alright, here’s an opportunity.’”

Yet the decision was far from easy; in order to fulfill his dream of renovating the Bay house and moving his family in, Brown would have to say goodbye to the family’s current Fairhope home.

“It was on Fly Creek, and we liked everything about it. We just had no idea that this opportunity was going to come around.”

The move outside of Fairhope’s city limits also meant that Brown would have to resign from the Fairhope City Council. “I loved serving the city of Fairhope, but I think there’s times for everything,” he says. “And this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in a third-generation house that I couldn’t pass on.”

Man and woman standing at renovation site
Monteigne and Robert Brown hope to have their family moved into the multi-generational home by the Fourth of July. Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Time to get moving

After purchasing the home last summer, Brown was first faced with the daunting task of raising the entire structure in order to put it above Base Flood Elevation. 

“If you renovate a house in a flood zone,” he explains, “you can’t do more than 50 percent of the value of the house in renovations if it’s below base flood.” 

The months-long process was accomplished by a grid of wooden and steel beams, a hydraulic jack and a whole lot of patience. Now, the home sits about two feet higher than before, which gives its new owner peace of mind.

“So, historically, if the house was at this elevation, in its 80 or so years, it never would have flooded,” Brown says.

Now, he can turn his attention to making the home suitable for a full-time family in 2021. The Bay house he knew as a kid only had one full bathroom for its four bedrooms, none of which was a true master. Through floorplan adjustments, Brown is busy enlarging the bedrooms while adding three baths. Every decision, however, comes with a cost.

The dining room’s distinctive windows allow for a steady breeze. Photo by Matthew Coughlin

“So the biggest change unfortunately that I had to do to modernize was … I had to close in the porches on both sides of the house,” he says. While the Bayside porch will remain, the house will absorb the north and south porches in order to compensate for the additional utility rooms and bathroom space Brown is adding. It’s a decision that represents the balancing act Brown must perform every day, simultaneously serving the past and the present.

“I’m doing my absolute best to keep it as much original as possible with the understanding that it’s got to be comfortable to live in,” he explains.

Other decisions have been easy: adding central heat and air, installing new plumbing and wiring. As for the upstairs, what was once one big room with a bed at each dormer will become two separate bedrooms and baths in addition to a game room and reading area. Standing at an upstairs dormer, one can gaze down on the wharf, which still bears the scars of last year’s Hurricane Zeta. 

“The wharf experienced many transformations due to changing times and shifting tides,” Papa’s great-granddaughter Caitlin remembers, but it’s not the only thing that’s evolved over time.

“The house has had many names over the years,” Brown reminisces. “We will call it Grandfathered Inn.”

If all goes according to plan, the Brown family hopes to spend the Fourth of July in their new residence, gathered around Papa’s baseball bat table, beside the panel windows Ruth adored. And if the wind is just right at 1:20 p.m, as the Braves take on the Marlins, the Browns might step onto the screened-in porch, just in time to catch the faintest whiff of pipe smoke on the breeze.

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