The Erdreich family has a history of immersing themselves in the rich culture, history and art of the wide world, while also being fiercely devoted to the growth of their Birmingham home.
“No matter where we go, we always come back to Birmingham. That’s a tradition in our family. My grandfather, who was an immigrant, told my dad when he got his scholarship to Harvard, ‘That’s wonderful son. You can go, but bring it back, because Alabama needs you.’ And so I grew up hearing the same thing, and my husband heard the same thing in his family,” says Dr. Ellen Erdreich, former art history professor at American University and UAB. Accordingly, she and her husband, former U.S. Rep. Ben Erdreich, spent 10 years in Washington, D.C., serving the people of Alabama, and, after years of splitting their time between Birmingham and D.C., as well as regular travels to exciting spots like Paris, New York, England, China and beyond, they once again returned to their Southern home.
“We wanted the façade to be plain and unassuming, a mid-block building that, while clearly modern, fit in with the scale of the surrounding structures,” says architect and the owners’ son Jeremy Erdreich, principal architect at Erdreich Architecture.
This modernized stoop and elevated first floor are elements of a classic row house.
An aerial view of the entryway and adjoining living room affords a perfect view of the open floor plan. “Operable frosted hopper windows below give privacy, while the large, fixed-glass pieces above are positioned so that people on the street can’t see in,” says Jeremy.
Because of their love of thriving cities and their desire to further contribute to the growth of their city, Ben and Ellen wanted to live in downtown Birmingham. They honed in on Second Avenue North, before it was the happening hub that it is today, and secured a parking lot adjacent to a building that dates to 1896 and is among the oldest existing historic structures in the city. With its echoes of the city’s rich past and situated on a street where the Erdreiches saw great potential for economic development, it seemed like the perfect spot for their custom urban home. They commissioned their children — son Jeremy, the accomplished principal architect behind Erdreich Architecture, and daughter Anna, the savvy home renovation mastermind behind Kobrin Works — to design an urban home that fit their aesthetic and lifestyle.
“Being a post-Civil War city, Birmingham has no history of row houses like Baltimore, Philadelphia and other older American cities,” says Jeremy. “So, we studied classic row house plans of older cities and reinterpreted those traditional elements into our design in a modern way, using simple materials and detailing defined spaces that flow into each other without doors and a daylighting strategy that allows maximum natural light into the spaces throughout the day.” In addition to cutting down on electricity with its optimum use of natural light, the home also incorporates numerous energy-saving concepts, such as the use of ecofriendly materials, recirculating water features, UV-reflective glass and a full green rooftop garden.
Ellen describes the home as mixed and eclectic, combining modern, traditional and inherited elements. All of the art, with the exception of a handful of pieces, are Ellen’s creations, and many of the beautiful furniture pieces are from their travels abroad while Ben served as a congressman. “The interiors are meaningful to me,” says Ellen, adding, “not necessarily decorative.”
The foyer spills into what Ellen calls “the little library,” where the family spends most of their time talking, reading and visiting. “I like a house you can live in,” says Ellen, “so I place books about different cultures on the lowest shelves for the children, as well as our globe, rock and fossil collections and our dictionary.”
Books are extremely important to the Erdreiches. “The main feature of the foyer and little library is the massive wall of bookcases painted Chinese red with black interiors,” says Jeremy. “These, along with other details in the house, are chosen to better present the family’s furniture, art and books.”
Ellen says that although the TV is in the room, it is not the de facto focal point. She and Ben might watch the news, but they usually talk and read in this room.
This 1680s writing desk is one of Ellen’s favorite pieces. Its twisted legs are a popular Baroque feature.
The modern fireplace is an ecofriendly design, and the interior courtyard and large sliding doors also afford energy-saving attributes: natural light floods the space, and this lowest level always remains very cool, saving energy and cutting back on costs.
When the Erdreiches entertain, they can expand the space by opening the interior courtyard.
“Besides giving natural light to adjoining spaces that otherwise wouldn’t have it, the interior courtyard affords glimpses of other rooms and creates the illusion of spaciousness in this 2,600-square-foot home,” says Jeremy.
Ben and Ellen sometimes enjoy lunch in the interior courtyard.
Ellen bought this 1970s Herman Miller brown leather chair for Ben when they had their first house. “It’s where Ben reads his newspaper,” says Ellen.
The home’s eclectic style is perfectly illustrated in the living room, where a modern sofa is juxtaposed by a 1700s French armoire, antique Chinese coffee table and chairs, modern art and a family heirloom piano.
This charming, eclectic style is at once sleek and modern, while also exuding a comfortable, lived-in feel.
Anna Erdreich found this unique wallpaper, featuring negatives of rose blossoms, from a small company based out of Brooklyn, NY.
Ellen bought this chair for herself when she and Ben married, because, she says, “It fits me perfectly!”
The kitchen displays many of the home’s ecofriendly features, such as the bamboo millwork and cabinetry. Recycled resin, or 3form, serves as a countertop and backsplash in the kitchen.
Ellen saw this MOMA leather kangaroo key holder in the New York Times and had to have one. “I’m not usually like that, but I just had to have it,” she says. “And I always know where my keys are!”
Ellen’s gardening hat and watering can stand ready at the kitchen’s entryway into the backyard garden.
“The garden on the main level, with its very modern design and rusted steel elements, diminishes the ‘heat island effect’ downtown,” says Jeremy, who had assistance from talented landscape designer Michael Steiner on this portion of the home.
The rear courtyard garden leads to the garage.
The recirculating water feature is ecofriendly, but also helps muffle the urban noises around the property.
Art is one of the home’s main decorative components, as well as family pictures. This stairway wall (left) features generations of Ben’s and Ellen’s family lineage.
This bedroom combines ecofriendly elements with heirloom items and modern art.
“Reclaimed Alabama white marble from a construction site a few blocks away was salvaged, cut and became the stone tile in the guest and master baths,” says Jeremy.
Creeping vines fill the wall with lush greenery, and succulents cover the ground on the home’s rooftop garden, Ellen’s favorite place in the house.
“This full green rooftop garden was unique to Birmingham at the time of construction,” says Jeremy. “It insulates the house, cutting down on energy bills; absorbs runoff, thereby lessening the impact on local sewer systems; and helps cool the microclimate surrounding it, making downtown just a bit cooler overall.”
“I love to be up here,” says Ellen of her rooftop haven, where she grows strawberries, lettuce, arugula, sorrel, kale, tomatoes, squash, chives, parsley, rosemary, sage, garlic, thyme, tarragon, basil and dill, among other vegetables and herbs.
As soon as this singular modern row house was complete, Ben, Jeremy and Anna got to work on developing the neighborhood. They created the flex space known as 2nd Row, which now houses Urban Standard, Yo Mama’s Restaurant, Feast & Forest and more — a development that laid the groundwork for Charm, Rogue Tavern, Pale Eddie’s Pour House, Bamboo on 2nd, The Collins Bar and El Barrio Restaurante & Bar to join the now bustling Second Avenue North neighborhood. And Ellen particularly savors time spent in her rooftop garden, listening to the ambient sounds of her growing city. “I love to be up here. I feel like I’ve been to the beach! But I have to do things with my hands. I can’t just sit on the beach, so this suits me much better. During certain times of year, I could spend days up here.”
Thank you to Beth Hontzas for today’s beautiful photography!
Architect: Erdreich Architecture
Landscape architect: Michael Steiner, (470) 588-1009
Custom bamboo millwork: Henrybuilt
Dining room wallpaper: Trove
Resin countertops and stair panels: 3form
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