When the congregation at St. James Episcopal Church in Alexander City decided to expand the footprint of their campus by purchasing property adjacent to the church on South Central Avenue, they encountered crumbling foundations and other deferred maintenance issues in the two homes included in the purchase. Much to their surprise, however, they found more than just decades of wear and tear. They also found beautiful materials in the old homes, especially in the one formerly known as the Lunch Bunch – that made the purchase even sweeter.
“We weren’t sure what we would do with the property once we had it. We knew we needed a level parking lot and a porte-cochere to provide a covered entrance to the church. We consulted with architectural historians who told us the Lunch Bunch house really had no significant architectural value. We decided to renovate the smaller house to use as a rectory where parish priests and their families could live,” said the Rev. Rob Iler, rector at St. James.
A former building contractor with a keen knowledge of design and architecture, Iler had a unique perspective during his first tour of the old homes. He knew exactly what the church was getting into, and he knew any renovation needed to be cost efficient and worth the investment. He also was inspired to incorporate elements of the Lunch Bunch house into the rectory, adding architectural detail and charm to the 1932 craftsman bungalow.
The Church purchased the property in 2017 and began the process of salvaging materials from the Lunch Bunch house and taking the 1,200-square-foot brick cottage down to the studs. As work progressed, passersby witnessed the transformation.
“We used volunteers from the Church to do the work in the beginning. We took materials out of the Lunch Bunch house and stored them all over the place – in the church basement, in a trailer out back, in the house being renovated. Larry McAnally, a local builder and Church member, was instrumental in carrying the vision forward. We could never have done it without him,” Iler said.
The original cottage floorplan included small rooms, so the first order of business was to reconfigure the downstairs walls and open the space from the kitchen through the dining room to the living room. The 9-foot ceilings and large window placements in the front and back of the house were left intact to allow natural light, and a double window in the former dining room became French doors leading to a new screened porch.
“The wood used to build the screened porch had been the deck on the other house. We really enjoy that outdoor living space,” said Betsy, Iler’s wife and managing editor of Lake, Lake Martin Living and Elmore County Living magazines.
The renovated kitchen includes a porcelain tile floor and granite countertops. The Ilers selected new appliances, plumbing and light fixtures in the kitchen. Off the kitchen in what had been a large pantry, a laundry room incorporates an antique sink from the Lunch Bunch.
The original oak floors and bead board ceilings in the living and dining rooms enhance the new open-concept floorplan. The bead board and beams in the main living space were painted Sherwin Williams’ Dove White to contrast the Crushed Ice color on the walls. The old brick fireplace, covered over with 1-inch and 3-inch tiles, includes four 6-inch accent tiles that were crafted by the pottery guild at St. James.
Two bedrooms and a full bath downstairs are just off a hallway from the main living area. The original pine floors in that area were refinished, and the bead board ceilings were sanded and clear coated. Doors with the original, still working, transoms were painted Dove White.
“All of the door frames, window frames and baseboards downstairs were milled from mahogany paneling found in a den at the Lunch Bunch house. It was beautiful wood that just needed to be planed and a coat of polyurethane added to highlight the natural beauty and grain in the wood. We also brought over solid wood doors that are over a hundred years old. We changed out the hardware and painted them to contrast with the mahogany,” Iler said.
A solid mahogany door that had been used as a desktop in the Lunch Bunch became the rectory’s front door. Mahogany stair treads, also of re-milled mahogany from the paneled Lunch Bunch room, and square, hand-turned balusters created an impressive stairway, visible from the living room, for second-floor access.
“The house had two front doors – one into the living room and one into a small bedroom. We took out the door into the bedroom and added a stained glass window. With a wall removed to open the area to the living room, that former bedroom space became the stairwell. The balusters were all hand-cut – they were produced before electricity was common in the region – which would have been quite labor intensive. I searched for months for antique stained glass for the new window that we added where the door used to be,” Iler said.
A frosted glass chandelier that hangs in the stairwell also was salvaged from the house next door.
Originally, only attic space existed upstairs, with a cantilevered pull-down stairway behind the original kitchen as the only access. Using Iler’s vision for the home, a loft at the top of the stairs now provides home office space for the couple but could be used as a playroom or converted into another bedroom for a future clergy family with just a few modifications. The original gable roofline of the attic, which ran the length of the original house, remains for the loft. A new master bedroom and bath upstairs added 600 square feet of living space. The slope on the left roofline remains, but a long dormer raised the roof several feet and extended the home’s southeast side upstairs.
The bathroom includes a cast iron claw foot bathtub that was rescued from the Lunch Bunch house. After several days of cleaning and a coat of dark gray paint on the outside, the antique is another showcase piece in the home. Iler wanted to use the tub’s original plumbing fixtures, so he invested many evenings in restoring them to working order.
“We researched 1930s craftsman architecture for the finishes. Decorator Nan Jackson helped us with design details and colors as well – and Rob has a great eye. He would narrow the choices for the finishes; then, we would choose them together,” said Betsy.
About 18 months into the project, exhaustion had set in, and Church members suggested hiring a second contractor to speed up the finish.
“We needed help, so builder Rick Jones was hired with his crew to help complete the job. They did a great job,” Iler said.
The renovated rectory is a brick home, painted white to match the church, as it is now part of a campus that will soon be expanding. The door on the front of the house was painted red, a tradition in the Episcopal Church, signifying hospitality and welcome. And when the Ilers moved in a few months ago, the congregation held a house blessing.
“A house blessing is important in the Episcopal Church. The congregation gathers in the home, and we offer prayers of thanksgiving. We offered thanks for everyone who worked on the project. We travelled as a group from room to room, and as the priest, I used a pine bough to sprinkle holy water in each room as we said special prayers,” Iler said.
As an ex-contractor, and more importantly, as the spiritual leader of the Alexander City St. James community, Iler joyfully followed this project from the ground up, watching the work of many hands, including his own, salvage the past to make it beautiful again for future generations.