The Homestead: Homage to the Past

March 1, 2016 in Spring 2016 Issue by oliviagrider

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A couple breathes new life into The Oaks with an emphasis on antique décor, preserving memories and creating new ones.

By ELIZABETH MANNING

The home is present in Jim Rotch’s earliest memories.

The three-bedroom, two-bath Queen Anne-styled house, christened The Oaks for a stand of giant oak trees that once characterized the property, is older than the city of Fort Payne, Ala., where it’s located. The prominent Haralson family built the original structure in 1884 on Forest Avenue.

Now Jim and his wife Darlene are carrying on the home’s proud heritage with their own decorative nods to the past while making it a gathering place for family and friends.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The house was a nostalgic pursuit for Jim as he spent much of his childhood just a few houses down in Catherine Green’s home, where his parents rented the bottom floor. His father was a vocational agriculture teacher at Fort Payne High School, and his mother was a teacher at nearby Forest Avenue Elementary.

One of Jim’s memories is walking with his nursemaid to the hitching post in front of the house to wait for his mother to walk home from school.

“When we got a chance to buy it, I just couldn’t pass it up,” Jim says.

The Rotches bought the house in 2002 and have been working on it ever since.

“Right after we bought the house, we kept calling it ‘the money pit,’” Jim says.

“And then we bought the hotel, so obviously we just can’t stop,” Darlene adds.

The hotel Darlene references is the Mentone Springs Hotel in nearby Mentone, Ala. It, along with White Elephant Antique Galleries, burned in 2014.

Jim and Darlene previously lived in Birmingham, where Jim still works as a partner with law firm Bradley Arant during the week. Darlene, the managing principal of Panorama Public Relations, has slowly transitioned to living in Fort Payne full time. The house has become a treasured retreat for the couple.

The front rooms and the rounded front porch were additions to the house in 1900 and 1905, respectively. The front entry opens into a large foyer with a sitting area and a staircase leading to the second floor. To the right is another sitting area. To the left is Jim’s den, and a hallway leads to the dining room, kitchen and the downstairs bathroom.

The entire house is filled with antiques, each piece with its own story of how the couple found it.

“We don’t buy anything new – everything in this house, barring the appliances, is old,” Darlene says.

Jim’s love for antiques began while he was in law school.

“I didn’t have a lot of money, and I liked quality things,” Jim says. “I couldn’t afford new quality, so I started collecting old things.”

Some of the quality antiques Jim collected became projects that offered him respite from his studies. One such project also has become one of his favorite pieces in the home. He attended a farm equipment auction one weekend while in law school in Virginia. The auction was held in a pasture, and in the midst of the farm machinery, the organizers started bringing out old furniture.

“The people [in attendance] were there to buy farm machinery, not furniture, so the pieces were going for very little,” Jim says.

Jim found out later there was a mansion over the hill, and auction workers were cleaning out a chicken house that had held furniture from the mansion. Jim had come looking for a bookcase, and when a two-piece bookcase and desk went up for sale, he bid on it. Jim bought the desk for $8.

“When I took it apart to redo it, someone had written in pencil on the back of the desk, ‘This carcass was put together in May 1830,’” Jim says. “Then there was a line under it that said, ‘Renovated by so and so in 1910.’” Jim added his name and date when he finished the desk, too. The two-piece desk now sits in the dining room.

A small room off the central hallway and staircase adjoins the downstairs bathroom. French décor is filtered throughout the house, but is especially evident in this room. Jim is the chairman of the board of directors for the National Cement Company, which is owned by the Vicat family. Members of the French family are friends of the Rotches. The couple go to France on an annual basis and pick up a few antiques along the way.

A French flag flies next to an American one on the front porch of the house.

“We put that up the day of the [Paris] terrorist  attacks and haven’t had the heart to take it down,” Jim says.

The kitchen was originally separated from the house, and the current kitchen served as the main bedroom. When the couple was in the process of renovating the house, they discovered another fireplace, making a total of three in the house. They decided to leave the rockwork uncovered, and a stove sits in front of the fireplace now.

Each of the other fireplaces is inlaid with Italian marble. Jim and Darlene completely renovated the kitchen in 2012.

“I had hosted all kinds of parties and fed lots of people out of the old kitchen, but when Jim learned the church wanted to put us on the tour of homes, that’s when we renovated it,” Darlene laughs.

In addition to the kitchen renovation, the couple has also done structural work on the house, replaced the roof, restored the side porch and refinished the original hardwood floors.

Although the house is filled to the brim with antiques, it is still very much a gathering place. Jim and Darlene have five children and 10 grandchildren between them and wanted to create a landing place for the family to congregate. The couple’s three dogs roam the house, too.

According to Darlene, there would probably be quite a few more running around if Jim didn’t have a say in the matter.

“Jim would prefer I just collect Foo dogs and not the real thing,” Darlene says. Those she has in numbers, too, though. Two of Darlene’s favorite pieces in the house are a set of Foo dogs Jim gave her several years ago.

One of the most challenging renovation projects was one that drew several blessings, too. At the back of the house sits a pool once surrounded by a chain-link fence and accessed via a concrete sidewalk. The couple renovated the pool in 2002 and replaced the “eyesore” of a fence in 2003. Jim designed a deck to extend from the back door and replace the back stoop and concrete walkway.

Soon after the pool project was completed, Jim was doing some work around the house and noticed something odd. The bottom of the pool was full of little rocks. Jim asked a neighbor if she had seen anything. The neighbor had not witnessed the incident, but said it was possible a small group of children who regularly roamed the neighborhood could have done it.

Jim fished all the rocks out of the pool, but on the following Saturday, they were back. Jim says he was so mad he called the police. A patrol car came to the house, and Jim told officers what had happened. Later that day, Jim was working in the yard when he felt eyes watching him. He looked up the hill and saw five children, ranging in age from 5 to 10 years old, watching him work. He met them halfway up the hill.

“One of them said, ‘When are we going to get to go swimming?’” Jim recalls. “And I said, ‘It doesn’t look like anyone is going to get to go swimming; someone’s been throwing rocks in my pool.’”

Jim says the kids’ eyes got really big, and he told them that if they would help him watch for the people who were throwing rocks in his pool, then later on in the summer they would have a swimming party.

From that point on, Jim says, the children started watching for the couple to arrive. “Darlene spoiled them to death,” Jim says. “They came in and treated the house like their own.”

After about five years, Jim says, the children, then in their teens, were at the house swimming and decided to confess. Jim told them, in short, that he and Darlene loved them anyway.

“And it was like I had flipped a switch – they all ran up and hugged me,” Jim says.

In addition to the main house on the property, which occupies one full block on Forest Avenue, there is a one-bedroom guesthouse behind the pool. A creek runs along the property’s back border.

Originally, the 1.3-acre property hosted three outbuildings: a well house, a wash house and a servant’s bedroom. In 1935, the guesthouse was built, and at some point in the 1950s, the pool was added.

For the Rotches, projects still seem to be aplenty. The couple is in the process of renovating another home at their Ten Acorns Farm on Lookout Mountain. The Italianate home was originally on a plantation in Coosada, Ala.

In 2011, Jim, who is a board member of the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation, got a call from a friend saying the house was going to be torn down if someone didn’t buy it.

“That was all he needed to hear,” Darlene says. “I knew at that point, we were getting another house.”

Todd Kirkpatrick, of Kirkpatrick House Movers in Warrior, Ala., moved the house to the farm in three pieces on three different days. The home will be a project in process for the next couple of years, but that seems to be just the way the couple likes it.[/s2If]