You are here
The Theodore Swann House tells a story of industry and architecture in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1920s. The city, founded shortly after the Civil War on the promise of its large iron, coal, and limestone deposits, lies in a valley edged by foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In its early days, houses stood within blocks of blast furnaces lining the central railroad tracks. Although soot and noise soon led residents to move to higher elevations, it was decades before the automobile, along with a booming 1920s economy, made it feasible for some of the wealthiest to build a string of grand houses atop Red Mountain (named for the color of its iron ore deposits), which overlooked the city and its industrial plants. The finest of the houses along the crest belonged to Theodore Swann, a larger-than-life entrepreneur who made his fortune in industrial metallurgy, and his wife, Catherine.
In 1926 the Swanns chose leading Birmingham architectural firm Warren, Knight and Davis to design their Tudor Revival mansion. Its design reflects Theodore Swann’s enthusiasm for medieval and Tudor England, nurtured by his travels to Britain, as well as Warren, Knight and Davis’s own taste for historically derived English styles. Lyman Cleveland of Philadelphia, who was brought in to assist with the interior decoration of the primary rooms, helped create period details drawn from English precedents from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Of particular note are the extensive red oak woodwork and paneling and fine plaster ornamentation, both distinguished by exceptional craftsmanship. (Dark stain on the wood was removed in 2008 to help lighten dark interiors.) Nicola D’Ascenzo Studios, which had a longstanding connection with Lyman Cleveland, designed stained glass windows depicting a variety of medieval subjects for ten rooms, constituting that well-known studio’s largest and most expensive residential commission. The series in the library, extending across nine casement windows to illustrate the procession of pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales, has been singled out as the most important D’Ascenzo windows in the house. (All of the more than 300 leaded glass windows in the house were restored in the early 2000s.)
Seen from the street, the house’s south facade rises three stories above a podium-like terrace that stretches across its front. The primary floor includes a vestibule, large reception hall, living room, study or library, sun porch, main dining room, and family dining room, as well as kitchen and service spaces. The family living quarters are on the floor above, and on the top floor, under a steep slate roof, are rooms intended to house servants. On the north (city) side of the house, the architects took advantage of sloping topography to expose two additional floors. The interiors of these lower levels reflect the romantic side of 1920s period revivals and of Swann’s personal taste. They create settings for entertainment akin to stage sets for historical dramas. On the first level, as one descends, is what was first called the “trophy room,” two rooms with hunting scenes painted at the bottom of leaded casement windows, with mounted hunting trophies on the walls. One of these rooms is now more commonly referred to as the “Elizabethan tavern.” The tavern room has a space between the interior wall and the below-grade, windowless retaining wall into which an elaborate lighting scheme was installed, with colored gels to allow Swann to create indirect lighting through false windows to give the impression of different times of day. On the lowest level, accessible from interior stairs or from the gardens on the north face of the mountain is a grand, two-story room generally called the “Norman hall,” although the plans label it “stone hall.” The soaring space takes inspiration from the twelfth-century banqueting hall at Hedingham Castle in Essex, England, with its stone construction and massive arched opening across the width of the room. On this level there is also a period kitchen sometimes called “Cardinal Richelieu’s kitchen,” though the origins of this affiliation with the seventeenth-century statesman is unclear.
Extensive use of locally quarried native sandstone on the exterior, both for the house as well as entry gates, retaining walls, and other landscape features, unifies the house and grounds on the roughly 2.6-acre site. Limestone trim, half-timbering, slate roofing, and an array of chimney stacks, designed by Warren, Knight and Davis and manufactured in Wales, further enrich the textures and craftsmanship of the composition. The bargeboard framing the half-timbering above the entry is richly carved, and features carved heads on the two supports. Birmingham landscape architect William H. Kessler designed the original gardens.
In contrast to its period style, the house was built with thoroughly modern construction: concrete structural frame and a roof structure of steel trusses with a then state-of-the-art cementitious roof deck to which the slate was attached. The heating and electrical systems were also advanced for the time, and included individual heating controls in every bedroom, a central vacuuming system, and steel windows. A sprinkler system irrigated the gardens. Movies filmed on site during construction add to our knowledge of the house as well as reflecting Swann’s keen interest both in the house and in modern technology.
Adams, Cathy C. “A Passion for the Past – Daniel and Brooke Coleman lovingly restore a masterpiece on a mountain.” Draft manuscript subsequently published, with changes, as “Architecturally Exact: With the help of a talented crew of artisans, a Birmingham couple lovingly restores a masterpiece on the Mountain.” Portico(April 2009).
Adams, Cathy Criss. Worthy of Remembrance: A History of Redmont.Birmingham, AL: Redmont Park Historic District Foundation, 2002.
Coleman, Brooke. Interview by Alice M. Bowsher, September 22, 2016, Birmingham, Alabama, and email communications November 7 and 12, 2016.
Erdreich, Jeremy C. The Swann House and the English Arts and Crafts Ideal.Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Historical Society, 2012.
Griffith, Edward, and Carolyn Green Satterfield. The Triumphs and Troubles of Theodore Swann.Montgomery, AL: Black Belt Press, 1999.
Kelley, Barbara T., editor. Birmingham Rocks: History and Use of Native Sandstone in Our Architecture and Landscape.Birmingham, AL: Vulcan Park Foundation, 2008.
Pyburn, Jack. Email interview by Alice M. Bowsher, November 7 and 9, 2016.
Schnorrenberg, John M. Remembered Past Discovered Future: The Alabama Architecture of Warren Knight & Davis, 1906-1961.Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1999.
Weilbacker, Lisa. “A Study of Residential Stained Glass: The Work of Nicola D'Ascenzo Studios from 1896 to 1954.” Master’s thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1990.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.