It’s 5 a.m., and the clouds above the water suddenly turn a vibrant pink and orange before gently fading to blues, greys and white as the sun rises behind the Dog River bridge. From Mike Finan’s “natural habitat,” sitting in his easy chair with a cup of coffee, he watches the morning unfold before his waterfront home south of Mobile. A lone boat eases toward the Bay for some early morning fishing. There aren’t too many creatures awake at this time of day, but the hours of a surgeon die hard. Even in the first few months of his retirement from the USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute, Mike is an early riser.
Leaving the house at 6:30 a.m. every morning for rounds, surgery and meetings as the director of Mitchell Cancer Institute, Mike came to appreciate a good sunrise. He had a lot of practice. But it wasn’t just early work hours that gave sunrises meaning for the Finans.
When Mike and his wife Melinda first viewed the lot on Dog River where their home now sits, they were thrilled with its east-facing shoreline. While others may prize sunsets, the couple wanted to be able to face the water in the cool comfort of afternoon shade while enjoying their signature gin and tonics. The Finans had finally found their forever home on The Dog River, as Mike calls it.
The minute you meet Mike and Melinda, it is apparent they were born and bred a touch further west than The Grand Mariner. If Mike’s New Orleans accent isn’t a dead giveaway, his purple and gold fleur de lis socks are. The American, Alabama and LSU flags fly proudly together next to a lone cypress tree, hugging the shore where the Finan’s dock meets the land along the widest part of Dog River. But the strongest nod to their native territory is in the architecture of their raised home, whispering “Acadiana” at every turn. They chose to build a life and raise a family here in south Alabama, but not without bringing a taste of home with them.
Back in 2005, the Finans were living a comfortable life in New Orleans with their 8-year-old twin daughter and son when Mike came home one day and told Melinda he had accepted a job in Mobile. “I was so mad,” she remembers. “He never even told me he was interviewing.” Mike closes his eyes hard, remembering a tough marital lesson learned. Their house sold quickly — a bittersweet blessing — as they said goodbye to a home that was walking distance to Mike’s mom and close to family and friends they had known for years. The move along the Gulf Coast began a new chapter.
Hurricane Katrina hit less than two months later. “I looked at Mike and said, ‘You’re the smartest guy in the world.’” The couple laughs in disbelief — and with a tinge of guilt — about how pure luck moved them out of harm’s way just in the nick of time. Despite the incredible suffering the hurricane brought to the Finans’ hometown, it became a touchstone for them when they settled in Mobile. “I think people assumed we were displaced by the storm,” Mike adds. Anyone at that time who had just moved to town from New Orleans had moved for one big reason. It was an easy assumption to make, and people reached out and made them feel welcome instantly. “It was such a tragic time for the Gulf Coast,” Mike remembers. “It really brought people together.”
Mike and Melinda drew on their Louisiana roots when they began to dream up their forever home, turning to the historic Antebellum cottages along the Mississippi River’s fabled River Road for inspiration. The French Creole homes lining the shoreline between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, built by sugar planters in the years preceding the Civil War, are some of the most iconic Southern structures, inspiring a regional vernacular.
It is a style that was later perfected by architect A. Hays Town, whose work was the model for many a creole and Spanish-influenced home across the Gulf Coast. As one of the first architects to use reclaimed timbers and patinaed surfaces as far back as the 1960s to ‘80s, Town set the standard for building modern Acadian homes with perfect historical appeal. His mark is all over the Finans’ Dog River home.
The house plans were drawn by Covington draftsman Andy McDonald, whose 40-year career has drawn direct inspiration from the work of Town. Deep raised porches across the front and back of the house with exterior stairs, dark green working shutters that close across pristine French doors, twinkling gas lanterns from Bevolo Lighting in New Orleans and triangle-shaped shingles are all built to historic proportion.
One has to look twice to see if the home is truly old or just very well done new construction. The Finans’ is the latter. Clean lines on the interior and simple crown moulding also keep with the historical accuracy, but while the exterior staircases feel period appropriate, the Finans added a sleek elevator in the inside for modern convenience and to ensure it would be a home in which they could retire.
The Next Chapter
Turns out Mike doesn’t sit still for too long, even in his “natural habitat.”
“I think I still have one more phase of my career left,” he explains. “I still have something left to give, and I’m looking to make a difference.” Although he was recruited by several hospitals around the country upon his recent retirement, and they even entertained the thought of a big move, the Finans chose the option that allowed them to make a difference while staying in their home on the river. He will start work with Singing River Health Systems in Pascagoula this fall.
“I just pinch myself when I stand at the kitchen sink and look out this window,” Melinda gushes. “How could we ever leave this?”