As part of the 2019 “This Place Matters” campaign, the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission salutes Alabama’s Bicentennial by profiling homes built in the community more than 200 years ago.
When Dianne and Calame Sammons bought the “Perkins-Orgain-Winston House’ in the heart of downtown Huntsville, renovating a historic home wasn’t something they had intended to do.
As a young couple with two small children, most of their friends had moved into sensible ranch homes in newer neighborhoods. But the Sammons liked antiques and history, and they were drawn to the character of this 1815 home, one of the earliest built in Huntsville.
It feels like a normal house would have been boring. That’s why we chose to take this on.”
Flipping through a scrapbook of old photos, Dianne points to a black and white snapshot of the front of the house dating back to 1933.
“I only really cried one time during the renovation process,” says Dianne. “It was a couple weeks before Christmas and we cleaned up as much as we could and one of our contractors opened up one of the fireplaces that had been shut. So when I came back from running errands, there was black coal dust everywhere.”
The Sammons are now able to laugh at the many experiences they encountered during the renovation, especially since they had decided to live in the home with their children while making repairs, some of which they did themselves. The couple sectioned off the livable parts of the home while contractors worked on other rooms. As a result, Dianne says her family developed a close relationship with the local contractors they hired.
“You need to have those relationships, especially with a contractor,” she says. “Someone who you can call when an emergency happens. One of my contractors is at the very top of my contacts list, even before my husband.”
Another key figure in the Sammons renovation project was the late Harvie Jones. As the leading preservation architect at the time, Jones is credited with saving many historic homes that could have easily been demolished or altered to the point of losing all their original fabric.
The Sammons worked closely with Jones to keep the style and character of the home as authentic as possible. Like most historic properties, the Perkins home underwent some renovations through the years. The Sammons mission was to preserve and accentuate the significant architectural elements of the home, including the charming front porch added in the Victorian era, and to remove the modifications that were not contributing, like the vinyl siding.
During the process, there are always surprises and discoveries – some challenging and some good. While removing old paint on the front of the home, Calame exposed a beautiful limestone trim edging the doorway. Original to the home, Jones believed the stone was quarried in nearby Limestone County. It’s now a primary feature of the home.
The Sammons moved forward with some technological and not-so-technological additions to the home. Electrical aspects of the home were updated in order to install modern amenities such as digital thermostats to help keep the home livable. Along with bathrooms, a kitchen and laundry room, closets were also a priority.
“During the time the Perkins home was built, the government would tax spaces used as closets,” says Dianne. “It’s why a lot of historic homes do not have what we would consider a modern closet.”
Diane says she and Calame worked with the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission for the addition of a covered back porch, which is now her sanctuary overlooking her garden.
Walking through the Perkins-Orgain-Winston house, it is a remarkably different structure than it was more than 30 years ago, when Calame and Dianne first purchased it. And yet, much of the home would be recognizable to the man who built it, including the stunning six over six window windows that allow sunshine to pour into the home.
When asked if she had any advice for younger generations who may be interested in preserving historic homes, Dianne gave a few tips.
“It’s an adventure and it’s hard…but still, it’s fun,” says Dianne. “It feels like a normal house would have been boring. That’s why we chose to take this on. It doesn’t really help to cry, but it does help to have a little bit of wine.”