Legacy of a Vision
In the early 1920s, Warren Knight and Davis helped shape the architectural landscape of Birmingham’s neighborhoods and public buildings. Take a look at three Red Mountain homes that showcase their definitive, yet varied styles.
In 1921, on the cusp of the extravagant decade when “stockbroker Tudor” (nicknamed for the financial success of the homeowners) was all the rage, Warren Knight and Davis was a young firm just starting out.
With Warren gifted at design, Knight at engineering, and Davis at business and public relations, strengths were shared. In the years 1925-1927, the firm designed at least 96 buildings, including banks, churches, skyscrapers, and numerous large homes in Redmont and Mountain Brook—as well as many of the University buildings at Montevallo and Auburn.
So how did this newly formed firm gain such notoriety? Apocryphal stories abound. Descendants of Charles and Margaret DeBardeleben pass on the family legend that Charles, president of Auburn predecessor Alabama Polytechnic Institute’s Alumni Association, commissioned the firm to design his own sandstone Cotswold cottage in hopes of persuading the college’s board to hire the three architects who had joined forces the year before. Met with success, Warren Knight and Davis became the primary designers of structures built at Auburn from the 1920s through the 1940s.
The DeBardeleben home was the first of three homes built atop the crest of Red Mountain. Warren Knight and Davis incorporated period interior elements from succeeding centuries, including a heavily beamed vaulted living room ceiling, a Palladian sunroom window, and a formal Adam-style dining room to give the home the feel of an English lodge that has evolved over the centuries. Another bit of family folklore claims that the DeBardeleben house was sited facing away from the city view to avoid a front porch perspective of pollution. Architect Randy Marks, who designed a modern day terrace taking advantage of view, questions this myth. Designed as a single room deep boomerang, the house is positioned within inches of the rear property line on a natural foundation of rock outcropping. In Marks’ opinion, the immovable rock dictated placement.
Involved, like DeBardeleben, in Birmingham’s early industry, Thomas Benners, Sr., and his son Thomas Jr., also asked Warren Knight and Davis to create Tudor Revival homes on the crest of Red Mountain in 1922. The younger Benners and wife Margaret’s home is styled as a traditional English cottage with characteristic steep cross gables, arched doors, and dormer windows.
Architect James Carter respected the original WKD design during an extensive restoration for the current owner. “Whenever possible we put back the original design,” James adds, citing removal of a 1950s “Florida room” from the rear of the U-shaped house as an example. Updating the kitchen, Carter added a bay breakfast area and left the original butler’s pantry as transitional space.
“Design details that would have been run-of-the-mill for Warren Knight and Davis are unique today,” James Carter points out. “The use of ‘clinker’ brick, blackened and twisted bricks resulting from inconsistent heat in the beehive ovens of the day, are suitable for Tudor architecture and give a softness that you can’t get with regular uniform brick.”
By contrast, the Thomas and Allene Benners house calls to mind the elegant country manors built by wealthy Victorians. The senior Benners’ home features a dramatic entrance, with a massive oak door set behind an intricately detailed, banded wrought iron grille. The Benners’ entrance hall showcases a black and white marble floor, Jacobean plasterwork ceiling, and deep relief Grinling Gibbons-style carving in a frieze above the arched cased opening. (Grinling Gibbons was a premier woodcarver in the 1600s known for his realistic work in palaces, churches, and homes throughout England.)
Master of detail, Warren designed extensively in iron for light fixtures, door straps, and exterior ornamentation. Traditional English white oak is used throughout the homes in paneling, flooring, bookcases, and over mantles. “Will Warren wanted every house he designed to be efficient and beautiful and to make people happy,” remembers his daughter-in-law Nancy Warren. Homeowners enjoying the Warren Knight and Davis legacy almost a century later concur that he succeeded. “These houses are not only beautifully designed for entertaining, they are simply wonderful spaces for living every day.”
WARREN KNIGHT DAVIS
Terming Warren Knight and Davis “The dominant architectural firm in Alabama from the 1920s to at least the end of the 1950s,” architectural historian Dr. John Schnorrenberg wrote, “Warren Knight and Davis was a firm that always looked to the past and still sought to discover the future.”
William Tillman Warren received a B. S. in Engineering from Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1897, resisted family urging to pursue a career in undertaking, and studied architecture at Columbia University from 1898-1902 before joining New York’s prestigious McKim, Mead, and White.
Eugene Herbert Knight was a natural engineering genius, leaving formal schooling in ninth grade and later studying one year at New York Atelier Hornbostel of Society of Beaux Arts Architects.
John Eayres Davis graduated from the first Alabama Polytechnic’s Architecture program in 1911.
Among Warren Knight and Davis designs:
Independent Presbyterian Church 1920-1921 and 1924-1925
Alabama Power Building 1924
Country Club of Birmingham 1925
Theodore Swann Home 1926-1928
Watts Building 1928
Ramsay High School 1928