The Drought Continues

Yesterday, I visited the home of new clients. The couple moved to Montgomery from Albuquerque, New Mexico a while back and recently decided to construct a swimming pool in their back yard. My father was from New Mexico, and we had much to talk about. The newly excavated pool space and the resulting mounds of dirt, combined with this heat and drought, reminded us all of the New Mexico landscape. Our conversation turned to what we can do to prevent this temporary mirage from becoming a reality.

If you are getting tired of dragging garden hoses and sprinklers around the yard every few days, or even hours, there is an economical solution, far short of installing a custom irrigation system. A hose timer can be added to your outdoor water faucet for under $50.00. A hose timer has several settings which will turn on your sprinkler without you having to be there!

Hose timer

Hose timers are available at EWING IRRIGATION, 5890 Monticello Drive.  They carry the Calber 8444 Logica hose end timer, which is the one I often use for my clients and myself. A nine-volt battery operates the clock.

Timers are simple to install and set. But remember two things:

1) Do not use the timer in the winter, when freezing conditions occur.

2) Check your faucet for leaks before buying a hose timer. If your faucet leaks, you cannot connect the timer, because it requires an open faucet valve at all times. It is the timer that controls the flow of water.

If you still need a hose for hand watering and clean up, buy a hose splitter and put your timer on one side. Each side has its own control valve, so the main faucet valve can remain fully open for the timer while you operate the secondary hose as needed.

Hose splitters

Hose timers are also great for watering potted plants when you go on a trip. For more information, simply google hose timers, and get ready to be less stressed about your garden in this drought. Your plants will be less stressed, too.

Mark Montoya, the Practical Gardener, is a Montgomery native who first learned gardening from his father. He has designed, planted and nurtured gardens in our city’s neighborhoods — both old and new – for twenty years.

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Conference To Showcase Historic Midtown Living

Montgomery will be THE HOT spot for historic preservation October 7 through the 9th. We will be the host city for the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation and the Alabama Historical Commission annual statewide conference Preserving Alabama’s Hometowns, Embracing Historic Places—Making Life Better. The focus of this year’s conference is to showcase historic preservation as a tool in creating a vital, cultural, economic, and tourism core for downtown Montgomery as well as preserving and reclaiming our historic neighborhoods in which to live. The keynote speaker will be Donovan Rypkema, an internationally noted expert on using historic preservation as an economic development tool.

This year the conference is offering several tracks that offer something for anyone involved in old house living. The Preservation and Historic Neighborhoods: Building Better Communities track includes presentations and conversations with city planners, residents of historic neighborhoods and key leaders in neighborhood associations across the state. We’ll hear about the role of architectural review boards, the value of master tree plans, urban planning and city codes to enhance historic neighborhoods and they will show us how it all fits together preserving historic neighborhoods and making our lives better, (but us Midtowners already know this!)

Another track, Preservation and the Decorative Arts, will focus on living with fine art, artifacts and their care and conservation. A few highlights that Montgomery Midtowners might especially be interested in are listed below.

  • How to live with our old stuff (antiques)- a presentation and discussion about 19th century Alabama-made furniture and imports.
  • Wooden window restoration workshop demonstrating how to improve energy efficiency and maintaining important materials and features of our old windows.
  • An informative walk through two of our midtown historic neighborhoods, Cottage Hill and Old Cloverdale.
  • A panel discussion with historic neighborhood planners and residents of these neighborhoods from across the state talking about what works and what doesn’t.
  • Networking with other old house enthusiasts at lunch in Rescued Relics at Old Alabama Town.
  • How to preserve your family papers, images and artifacts.

And of great note and fanfare, our own David Braly and Mark Montoya, of Midtown Montgomery Living, will be receiving an Alabama Trust For Historic Preservation Rehabilitation Award for their exemplary rehabilitation of Fire House #9 on South McDonough Street in the Garden District. They will be showcasing the Fire House on Thursday evening 7:30 until 9:30 for Fire and Ice Soiree, a fundraiser for the ATHP.

Katherine and David Rees on Galena Avenue in Old Cloverdale have also graciously volunteered their lovely home and formal gardens for Moonlight Garden and Candlelight Dinner Party as a fundraiser for the ATHP on Friday evening at 7:30. (Have you gotten the idea yet that lots of folks in Montgomery support the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation?) Built in 1906, the home is graced with antiques and art and guests can enjoy dining in this 1906 house and meandering through its Lime Gardens with ornamental iron work, brick terraces and a dance pavilion.

For a complete listing of all the offerings of this conference and for registration options so you won’t miss anything go to or call 205-652-3497. Many activities, including registration, are centered at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Katherine and David Rees (who are gluttons for punishment but yet so generous to share) will also open their fabulous home and gardens for the Friends of the Alabama Governor’s Mansion fundraiser on Saturday afternoon from 3:00 until 6:00. Call 334-233-8595 for ticket information.

How can any Montgomery Midtowner ever say there is nothing to do in Montgomery?

Carole King (not the singer, just the hummer) enjoys midtown living from South Capitol Parkway in Capitol Heights where she has lived for 25+years. Carole has been the historic properties curator for the Landmarks Foundation that manages Old Alabama Town for 28 years and is passionate about neighborhoods, their architectural character, their people, and their preservation!

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Halloween in Midtown

Some people love Christmas. They go to those strange all-year-round Christmas stores full of the little decorative Santa statues, spend all year planning gift lists and parties, and possess a bewildering array of red and green clothing, some of which may be affixed with three dimensional snowmen. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We like Christmas too.

Other people are more into the family gatherings of Thanksgiving. And we even have a few friends that take April Fool’s Day pretty seriously.

Even our cat is into the holiday spirit.

But for us, Halloween is New Year’s Eve multiplied by a year full of birthdays, plus the ethnicity-neutral revelry of St. Patrick’s Day, and the solemnity of Secretary’s Day Administrative Professional’s Day (April 27, 2011) all rolled into one awesome holiday. You don’t have to buy gifts for anyone, there are no awkward coerced family moments, and, oh yeah, there’s candy. And with the fun of costumes, the emergence of nice weather, the relative (and that’s the key word) lack of commercialization, and the beautiful duality of the holiday both being about kids (trick or treating) and adults (late night parties), it’s pretty clear that Halloween is the best holiday.

So, since it’s the start of October (and if you haven’t started preparing for Halloween yet, you’re already behind), here’s a handy users guide to celebration of Halloween in Midtown Montgomery.

Halloween falls on a Sunday this year, leading to a hilarious Facebook status update by the City of Montgomery’s official Facebook page, letting people know:

Halloween is on October 31st and that is the date that will be acknowledged. Neither the City of Montgomery, nor the Mayor will designate a supplemental date for trick-or-treating. Because Halloween is on Sunday this year, many churches can and will use this opportunity to host religious celebrations, in addition to the many secular ways society recognizes Halloween.

Thanks to the city for not bowing to pressure to “designate a supplemental date for trick-or-treating.”

The Montgomery Zoo’s “ZooBoo” – We wanted more information, and were somewhat disappointed to see that the zoo’s website was so lackluster. If you click on through to the calendar of events, you’ll find that, “the Montgomery Zoo presents a safe alternative to Halloween. ZooBoo provides a fun filled evening of games, treats, and costumed characters, education presentations, and the traditional haunted ride.” Things kick off Thursday, October 14th-17th then October 21st-24th, and starting again Thursday, October 28th through Halloween. All we know is that it’s from 6 to 9 each night. No pics. No graphics. Fun? Maybe. It’s unclear what “education presentations” means. And what’s “the traditional haunted ride?”

$10 for adults (ages 13 and older), $7 for kids (ages 3-12), free for toddlers.

Atrox Factory – If you’re more serious about being frightened by professionals, it’s well worth it to make the drive up to Leeds, Alabama. There, you will find the Atrox Factory, a haunted house whose profits all go to assorted childrens’ charities. We went last year and thought it was great – read our review over at Lost in Montgomery.

Friday and Saturdays from 6:30-midnight; Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 6:30 until 10 p.m.

It’s $15 to go through the haunt, but an additional $5 cover charge on the nights when Atrox brings in celebrities (usually stars of horror films) to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

Sloss Furnace – Also in the Birmingham area is the haunt put together out at historic Sloss Furnace. The furnaces themselves are a must-see tourist attraction during the non-haunted times of the year, especially if you are interested in Alabama or industrial history. But the legacy of corporate exploitation of workers adds a little extra creepy air as you wander through the facilities at night with that unreproducible smell of age and decay hanging in the air and various weirdos popping out of dark crevices. Not the scariest haunt around, but probably worth it if you have never been inside an abandoned steel mill. You can tour both haunts for $20.

Netherworld – And then at the top of the easily-drivable heap of area haunted houses is Atlanta’s Netherworld. We are planning to go this year and just can’t wait. We’ll write it up over at Lost in Montgomery when we go, so stay tuned. It’s a little more pricey, but seems like it’d be worth it, with both haunts available for $27.

Stephen scared children at our friends' haunted house last year.

Haunted Hearse – One of the Halloween events we are most excited about checking out here in town is the new haunted hearse. Some enterprising entrepreneurs in town knew that there were folks like us out there who dig spooky things and have evidently somehow acquired an actual hearse and are offering tours. We bet they drive folks through Montgomery’s own Oakwood Cemetery. Of course, you could always go there on your own. Why go pay money to be frightened by theater students in expensive latex at places like Atrox and Netherworld when you can have a genuine communion with the actual dead in Montgomery’s most famous and most awesome cemetery? They do pickups from The Alley downtown and tickets are $10. Check out their Facebook page.

Corn Mazes – Two years ago we went to a corn maze (or “maize,” as they spelled it) out in nearby Titus. That particular one isn’t there anymore, but if you are interested in finding a maze or a pumpkin patch, this helpful website will help you locate either. Honestly, even as adults with no children we had a lot of fun navigating the complex corn maze in the dark. We were only sad we didn’t get to operate the cannon that shoots corn. If you’ve got youngsters, these things are probably even more fun.

Trick Or Treat – Despite the national and local decline of crime, the reality is that we live in communities that are often paralyzed by fear. There’s no better example of that than the decline of trick or treating and the emergence of “safe” indoor activities. There’s nothing wrong with fall festivals. Heck, they’re awesome. But they shouldn’t trade off with the community spirit promoted by going to the doors of strangers and having the audacity to ask for a treat.

Please let us know if there are other Halloween activities that we should be aware of!

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.


Filed under Fun, Holidays

Remembering Ken Groves

This past Tuesday, Montgomery lost one of its great champions. In his honor and memory, we would like to share the following editorial that ran in the Montgomery Advertiser on September 30, 2010. A link to the full piece is available here. About this piece, Sandra Nickel says: “Truer words were never spoken.  Amen and thank you, Ken!”


Ken Groves made city better place

SEPTEMBER 30, 2010

Ken Groves made his hometown a better place to live, which would be a fitting epitaph for the city’s planning director who died Tuesday after a brief battle with cancer.

Groves become the city’s chief planner nine years ago, and he helped to change the way many in the city look at planning and zoning issues.

He was an ardent champion of the city’s SmartCode zoning ordinance that allows for mixed-use zoning. The adoption of the code in 2006 allowed the creation of loft apartments and condominiums in downtown Montgomery.

Groves also worked diligently on the West Fairview Avenue redevelopment project — a project that epitomized his approach to development.

Instead of government officials telling the residents how their area should develop, Groves believed in asking them what kind of community they wanted — and then working with them to make it happen.

Even though there was no stronger advocate for smart growth development, he was not an “in your face” proponent. Instead, the soft-spoken planner worked to educate developers, government officials and the public on the advantages of the smart-growth planning and zoning. While not always successful, he made many converts, including many of the community’s elected officials.

One of his more recent projects was helping to plan an urban farm for property near the Montgomery Advertiser offices.

“The beauty of Ken’s work is that it will outlive him and there will be such a strong legacy that, as we go about our day-to-day lives, there will be efforts that Ken led that will be standing reminders of all the good he’s done,” said Deputy Mayor Jeff Downes, who worked closely with Groves.

“All you have to do is walk in downtown Montgomery and have a beautiful oak tree next to you as you walk. It’s a beautiful legacy.”

That’s true. But perhaps his most lasting achievement will not be the visible changes in the cityscape that he helped to create, but the changes in attitudes toward development that he helped to mold among the city’s leaders.


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Bye Bye Bel Aire—Hello, Hornet Football!

They started showing up shortly after 8 a.m. last Saturday. As the morning progressed, the land in front of the old Cloverdale School building gradually was covered over by RVs, trucks and cars. And out of the vehicles came grills, coolers, lawn furniture and canopies. Fans of Huntingdon football and their homecoming rival, Birmingham Southern, were participating in one of the South’s favorite rituals:  tailgating.

In the not-too-distant future, Alabama State Hornet fans will be able to enjoy the same spectator sport. In a brief interview on Friday, September 24, ASU President William Harris confirmed that ASU will be constructing an on-campus stadium. “We have the land available. We have the site picked out,” he said. Trustees are in the process now of preparing bond documents to support the project.

Hearing this good news from Alabama State brought to mind the construction already underway on the eastern edge of the campus, an area formerly known as Bel Aire. To enable future expansion, the University had between 1995 and 2000 acquired all of the property between University Boulevard and the west side of Forest Avenue.

Not all of the acquisition went smoothly. Some of the land was bought from homeowners, but a significant number of properties were acquired through the process of eminent domain. The recently deceased African-American District Judge Charles S. Conley owned many parcels wanted by the University and actually sued, alleging that officials had discriminated racially in their offers of compensation.

When I first noted activity on the Bel Aire land this spring, I telephoned University spokesman Ken Mullinax to learn if it might herald the coming of the much-discussed football stadium and was disappointed to learn that there were other plans for that area of the campus. The recent news of a stadium site is exciting, and I’m sure welcomed by alums who want to join the ranks of Southerners who are able to make game days really special.

It will be interesting to see if folks living near the ASU campus are equally happy about the planned addition. For reasons I don’t understand, I have heard some say that an on-campus stadium is not a good idea and that play should continue at Cramton Bowl.

It will also be interesting to see where Huntingdon tailgaters go when the Cloverdale School frontage, now being offered for sale by owner Colonial Properties, changes hands and is developed. Were there not a fire station on East Fairview, it might make sense to just close the street on game days and allow the party to occur in the roadway. As that is not an option, I suppose only time will tell.

Sandra Nickel has been listing and selling residential real estate for over 29 years, most with an intense focus on Montgomery’s Midtown neighborhoods. Sandra serves on the Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless, the Cloverdale Business Coalition, Historic Southview, the Volunteer and Information Center, Landmarks Foundation and her own neighborhood Garden District Preservation Association.

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Twelve Things About Sinclair’s

While it’s true in some senses that it’s easier to write what you know well, it’s also true that familiarity with a place makes it tough to offer a review that reads as credible to an outsider looking for a fairly objective snapshot of a place. As such, it’s hard to write about Sinclair’s, the cornerstone neighborhood restaurant of our part of town. We’ve been fairly regular there since moving to Montgomery a few years ago and that alone ought to tell you that it’s good enough to keep bringing us back.

And as with any place you’ve been countless times, we’ve seen some good, some bad, and pretty much ordered most of the things on the menu (well, most of the things that can be eaten by vegetarians who occasionally make exceptions for seafood). As such, there is no one prototypical meal for us at Sinclair’s. We’ll recount for you some facts you ought to know, and present them in list form for your convenience. And if you don’t want to read the list, the bottom line is this: It’s a great restaurant and you should eat there.

1. Outside seating: We have noted before that it’s a crying shame that our town lacks sufficient outdoor dining areas. It’s the South. We need chairs and patios in order to function as a decent society. There’s good enough weather here in this particular part of the world that, properly equipped with a few tables and umbrellas, we ought to be able to eat outdoors. Sinclair’s understands this. Best patio in town.
2. Full bar and strong drinks: These folks have a solid, if not flashy, bar and know how to mix drinks. You can sit inside or on the aforementioned patio, but we appreciate their ability to make drinks properly the first time and serve them in nice glasses. This all dovetails with the fact that there’s a movie theater next door, meaning you can have a great meal, have a few drinks, and walk over to the movie (or sit and discuss the movie after the fact).
3. No smoking: One of the downsides of many bars is the smoke haze. It’s nice to not leave Sinclair’s smelling like there’s some kind of film clinging to you, thinking that you need a bath.
4. Trivia: There really aren’t all that many places in town that do the trivia box competitive networked trivia game. Sinclair’s has it, along with the associated crew of eccentrics who take it super seriously. We love trivia. We are glad they pay for this service.
5. Good ambiance: It’s just a nice place to chill. It’s sort of formal, but you don’t feel awkward for sporting a t-shirt or shorts. It’s formal enough for legislators to make regular appearances, but informal enough that you can rip through a bunch of cranberry vodkas and not feel like you’re going to draw ugly looks. There usually aren’t a bunch of kids running around. The restrooms are snappy, the art is good, and it’s all around a nice place — the sort of place where you could bring a date or out-of-town friends, but also feel comfortable as a neighborhood regular just in for a meal or a night out of the house. They even do something in the men’s room certain to confuse future generations of “smart phone” users: They hang the sports page over the urinals. And the women’s restroom has a couch!
6. Fried foods: There’s trashy fried food in the world that leaves you feeling greasy and then there’s Sinclair’s fried brie wedges and simply otherworldly onion rings. Healthy? No. Fantastic? Absolutely. And atop the Sinclair’s pyramid of fried goodness must be the artichoke hearts, which we can’t do every time, but on those special occasions, are truly a delicacy of the highest order. The dipping sauce is creamy and the fried hearts are rich and, at the risk of overusing a foodie word, decadent.

Brie wedges

7. Brunch: Not to overplay the “Why doesn’t everyone have this?” angle, but it’s baffling that more places don’t have tasty brunch. Sinclair’s has it right, with multiple options for your eggs, amazing potato compliments, and quality mimosas served in good potency and quantity. Not something we can afford to do every weekend in this economy, but a fantastic benefit to be able to go there whenever we can make it work. Ask your server about the difference between Eggs Sardou and Eggs Soho. We always forget. Also, if you like crab, order the crabbie eggs. Nothing confusing there.
8. Smoked trout: The best thing on the appetizer list. There’s a photo below, but the texture of the fish is great and the combo of the capers and the cucumbers with the creamy sauce, well, it’s filling but not a tasty throwaway like so many other appetizers. It’s fresh-tasting and should be considered among the best appetizers in the city.

The trout

9. Spa salad: The go-to item when you’re not sure what else to get, this is truly an admirable baseline for the menu. It’s big, hearty, fresh and consists of greens, tomato, cucumber, mushrooms, red pepper, purple onion, artichoke hearts (not fried), and hearts of palm. At $8, it’s a bargain and a great meal.
10. Unsweet tea: Why doesn’t Sinclair’s have sweet tea? It might have something to do with the restaurant once being a Sinclair Oil gas station. They offer you sugar packets, as if you weren’t from the South and hadn’t looked with contempt at some other servers across the country when they tried to equate the granular mess made with packet and spoon to the ambrosia of actual Southern sweet tea. Why? Why? Damn you, Sinclair’s. I guess I’ll have a Coke instead.
11. Veggie burgers: We might go out on a limb and say that they’re the best in the city. The great thing is that they are willing to make them up like the many kinds of regular burgers they offer: with Swiss, peppers on it, mushrooms, etc. These people “get it.” A veggie burger is not meant to be some kind of health treat like a rice cake. And we can tell if you keep a box of Boca burgers in the freezer and thaw one out when the rare vegetarian stumbles along. Sinclair’s doesn’t do that. They create a big and tasty patty on good bread.
12. Good service: A recent trip had the server offering thoughtful suggestions on a couple of menu items, all of which turned out to be spot-on accurate. Drink glasses are rarely empty and most times you get the thing that you ordered. And if there is a mistake or a mix-up, they’re really cool about it. They’re friendly, laid back, and seem to genuinely want you to have a good meal. And that stands out and really makes you want to go back. Again, that’s the kind of thing that’s easy to say if you’re regulars and get good treatment from friends, but really, we’re not. Although we mentioned above that it’s hard to write a review of a place you know well, it’s also not like we are daily visitors. We just make frequent enough visits that we know we’re going to get good food in a good atmosphere at a good price and we want to make extra sure that we aren’t taking a neighborhood institution for granted.

Shirmp Po Boy: A little too much bread, excessive sour cream on the potato.

The fantastic Spa Salad


Filed under Kate and Stephen, Restaurant Reviews

Colonial Revival

Time and events coincided to turn the interest of American architecture away from the excesses of the Victorian Era and toward the country’s historical roots. In 1876 our country celebrated its centennial with celebrations and commemorations all over the country. If you were alive in 1976, you probably remember “Bicentennial Fever” sweeping the nation in much the same way. The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia helped focus national attention on American technology and decorative arts. One of its exhibits, a colonial kitchen with costumed interpreters, sparked larger interest in the colonial home. Decorative features like moldings, Palladian windows and columns of a more classical style began to migrate onto the irregular house forms we associate with the Victorians. At a glance these houses don’t appear to have anything to do with our Colonial beginnings. As the style developed, houses began to have more in common with our Federal and Georgian roots.

Montgomery was wild for the Colonial Revival. Important houses like the Teague House and the House of Mayors on Perry Street underwent significant alterations to bring them up to date. The House of Mayors lost its wrap-around porch and gained a classical entrance and some beautiful leaded glass in designs. The severe Greek Revival of the Teague house got a fancy sheet metal cornice and door surround (tap on it–it’s hollow!). The Griel mansion on South Lawrence Street, which was Italianate, lost its tower and gained afull-blown porch. Residents raced to keep houses up to date.

Montgomery’s newest residential areas, Capitol Heights, Cloverdale and the southern extensions of Court, Perry, Lawrence, Hull and Decatur that we now call the Garden District are also replete with examples of the style. In Capitol Heights, Colonial Revival shows its face in both grand and modest ways up and down Madison Avenue and South Capitol Parkway.

In the Garden District, the shape of the Queen Anne house persists on the northeast corner of Hull and Clanton, but the porch has round Doric columns and both the porch and eave moldings have dentil blocks and brackets. Just down on the next corner is a full-blown Colonial Revival with a very flat facade and beautifully proportioned entry and central Palladian window. In Cloverdale, Felder Avenue examples form a graceful sweep of substantial Colonial Revival on one of Montgomery’s most beautiful residential streets.

As time went on, brick houses began to outstrip weatherboard as a favorite exterior cladding, because of construction techniques allowing brick veneer for the first time. Smaller houses like the “Cape Cod” cottage became very popular. Graham Street in Cloverdale is full of little gems of colonial inspiration. The three houses with picket fences on the east side of the street between Felder and Park could be in any New England village. On the other end of the street near Thorn is a perfect example, with brick parapet walls enclosing the gable roof almost like Tidewater Virginia. I did say “almost.”

With only a brief side trip into some other styles, Colonial Revival has been the most popular and enduring stylistic language of residential architecture in our country. It was very popular in the catalogues of mail-order houses like Sears and Aladdin. Books about these mail-order houses are a good way to study the breadth of the style. One of  my favorites is Houses by Mail, by Katherine Stevenson and Ward Jandl. Any of the staff at Capitol Book and News can order it for you, or you can get a copy used on the on-line book sites like Alibris or ABE books.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

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