By Anne Ruisi
Its work to remodel a kitchen as part of an overall house makeover in Homewood’s historic Hollywood neighborhood has earned a Birmingham design and construction company an award from the Home Builders Association of Alabama.
The association honored j.fante studio with a 2022 Alabama Remodeling Excellence Award for Kitchen Remodel $75,000-$150,000, said the studio’s Joe Fante.
“We’re very pleased with the outcome,” said Jeremy Forsythe, who owns the home with his wife, Emily Forsythe.
The couple found the house when Emily headed to a Starbucks in Mountain Village on her way to work one morning. Just as she was driving down Hollywood Boulevard to get to the coffee shop, she spied a Realtor putting up a For Sale sign outside a house that caught her attention.
The two-bedroom, one bath house became their entry to Over the Mountain when they bought it and made it their own in 2009. But, as their family grew with the arrivals of their three boys – John Michael, now 10, William, 6, and Bennett, 3 – the little cottage-style home became too small for five people.
The couple knew they needed more room but didn’t want to leave the area, with which they had fallen in love, Jeremy said. So, they decided to put their effort into growing their home to match their growing family.
That eventually led them to j.fante studio, a design-build company that specializes in renovations and additions to existing homes. Fante is a graduate of Auburn University’s architecture program and spent time in Hale County at the Rural Studio program.
Emily reached out on social media for recommendations for companies that could expand their house. At their first meeting with Fante at their home, they told him what they wanted, and Fante talked about what he’d like to do as he walked through the house.
The Forsythes liked what they heard and on Feb.7, 2021, the remodeling project began.
Before any other work could be done on the 1930s home, an extensive overhaul was needed, with all new plumbing, electrical and gas installed. The floor system also needed repair, and the house size was more than doubled.
As for the kitchen, Fante described it as “really small and cramped,” with the old wood in the original cabinets falling apart. When formulating plans for the project, designers “tried to honor the original character” of the house, he said. The end result, he said, “fits the original house very well.”
To start, old rooms became spaces with new purposes. The kitchen was gutted down to the studs and became the pantry and mudroom. The master bedroom became the new kitchen, and the space where the old bathroom was became the new stairwell. There also was room to later expand the basement area.
Once the structure was in place, locally crafted, custom-made inset cabinets, honed marble countertops and panel-ready appliances were added, the award submission said. Reclaimed wood beams tied in with the new white oak flooring and white oak island cabinets. The La Cornue range is highlighted in a dual radius arched opening that matches the original arched opening in the living room.
A recessed exhaust hood with flush panel finish is hidden above the arch in the drywall ceiling, allowing the Zellige backsplash tile, pierced by a pot filler, to be a feature of the kitchen. A hidden niche on one side and recessed shelves on the other allow for quick access to cooking utensils. A pair of 30-inch column refrigerator and freezer blends with cabinet panel fronts next to a pantry cabinet that houses a coffee maker and small appliances on a marble countertop.
Other details include new Bessemer Glass French doors and triple casement windows over the kitchen sink, “which bring a delightful balance of old Southern tradition and new construction techniques,” Fante’s studio said in its award submission. “The silent accent to the clean lines of the steel windows and overall design are flush drywall air vents in the ceiling that ‘disappear’ from plain site, a niche touch brought to the project by the builder.”
Between the kitchen and the dining room are a pair of dry bars with a built-in double wine fridge on one side and cocktail storage on the other. The old front door of the house became the new side entry to the kitchen and mudroom.
Whole-House Renovations and Expansion
While the award was specifically for the kitchen remodel, work went far beyond that, Fante said, and included expanding what originally was a two-bedroom, one bath house.
The Forsythes opted for a double bunk room and a playroom split by a Jack and Jack bathroom, while the master suite features a large bathroom with a freestanding tub and large walk-in master closet with custom site-built shelving. A fourth bedroom is set up as a guest room.
A fireplace made of high purity limestone quarried in Alabama is a highlight of the living room, said Jeremy, who works for limestone company Lhoist.
The house was full of charm and character, and the owners’ priority was to add space that felt cohesive with the current house, according to the submission for the award.
By adding basement space for a two-car garage and a future basement suite, and by creating four bedrooms and 3½ baths, the work more than doubled the square footage of the house, Fante said.
Achieving this created one of the biggest challenges of the renovation. While more space was needed, the architectural character of the original house needed to be maintained.
“Our ultimate goal was to have a finished product that appeared to always be there. I feel we accomplished that,” Jeremy said.
“Thoughtful design led to a construction process that cut out the existing back corner bedroom, from roof to basement, in order for the new addition to begin. After relocating the stairs and removing a load-bearing wall to enlarge the living room, the space was now freed to join the addition,” the firm’s award submission noted.
Supply chain issues also became a challenge, as the COVID pandemic was raging across the country when their project began, Jeremy said. Some items took six or seven months to obtain.
The Forsythe boys enjoyed seeing the construction phase of the project, and it especially caught the interest of oldest son John Michael, who wants to be an engineer, Jeremy said. The boy liked foraging for scrap material for his own homemade projects.
“He dumpster dived a lot. He used materials to build a bird house and put copper gutters on it,” Jeremy said.
Outside, new details include steel paned windows and doors installed in the cottage-style house. Fante said these were custom made by Bessemer Glass and bring “more of a modern detail” to the structure while also acting as a homage to Birmingham’s industrial past.
Copper gutters and downspouts, stained cedar brackets and gas lights flanking the front entry door were added, while new brickwork was laid to match the existing partial shmear finish.
The Forsythe family moved back into their remodeled house on Oct. 30, 2021, the day before Halloween.
“That was the absolute drop-dead date to be in the house for Halloween, for the kids,” to enjoy the holiday in their neighborhood, Jeremy said.
The size of the house was much more in keeping with the family’s needs. When they moved in, the square footage of their house had increased from 1,200 square feet to 3,200 square feet, Jeremy said.
With a larger home, the couple can have friends visit and hold gatherings that weren’t possible in the cramped rooms of their home before the remodel.
“We definitely have the space we needed,” Emily Forsythe said.
Hollywood is one of Homewood’s historic neighborhoods, known for its distinctive Spanish mission-style stucco homes that were all the rage in Hollywood, California, in the late 1920s, when the neighborhood was developed, according to a historic marker on Hollywood Boulevard.
The roadway is the main east-west corridor through the neighborhood, running from U.S. 31 toward English Village in Mountain Brook.
At one point for a short time, Hollywood actually was a town, incorporated in January 1927 but annexed by Homewood in October 1929.
Like other Over the Mountain areas, Hollywood was advertised to homebuyers as a healthier place to live than in the city of Birmingham.
The sales slogan, “Out of the Smoke Zone into the Ozone,” referred to the neighborhood’s location south of Birmingham, far enough away from the industrial smog that choked the Magic City on the broad plain below the north slope of Red Mountain.