Nearly a decade ago, the face of downtown Birmingham changed dramatically when The Willits luxury condominiums were built on the site of a former parking lot.
As construction began, concerns over changing the character of the shopping district gave way to sporting speculation about potential celebrity buyers. (Madonna rumors were rampant.) In the years since, The Willits has seen its share of professional athletes, jet-setters, and the corporate elite as residents. Mostly, though, it’s a haven for those who seek its convenience, privacy, security, and five-star quality concierge comforts.
Today, condo décor represents a local who’s who of designers who have feathered the exclusive nests: Michael Coyne, Duncan Fuller Interiors, Paul Feiten, Jeffrey King, and Michelle Mio, to name a few.
The real attraction, however, is a kind of luxurious practicality. “I spent an hour in the place by myself and I didn’t hear a soul, not even a door click,” a current occupant says of the qualities that persuaded him to relocate from his ranch-style home with a six-car garage and one-acre lot.
Residents cite a gym, white-glove maintenance, and indoor parking as the reason they live where they do. “I’m sure light bulbs go out occasionally, but I never see it,” says resident Jeremy Sasson.
It’s a quiet bedroom community, of sorts, with bustle just beyond its polished, locked lobby. In size, The Willits is similar to many gated subdivisions. In character, it’s urban.
Encouraging downtown living was a key recommendation of the “Birmingham 2016 Plan,” created with the help of nationally known planning consultant Andrés Duany.
The Willits came on the heels of that study. “It was a turning point,” says architect Victor Saroki, whose Birmingham firm designed the condo building. “Duany said a city has to have 24-hour activities.” A residential population invites that.
Pre-Willits locals recall the former mundane parking that fronted Willits Street and serviced Maple Road retailers. “Nobody ever walked on Willits,” Saroki says. Having the building, which houses two restaurants at street level, completes a walking loop.
As for the years-ago fears of a negative impact on the streetscape, that hasn’t happened.
“There are buildings that are foreground buildings and buildings that are background,” Saroki says. “You can have a small foreground building and a large background. I consider The Willits a background building.”
Despite its size, it nestles among the stores and restaurants like a European streetscape. As one Willits owner described: “It reminds me of Shaftesbury Avenue in London where it comes off Piccadilly.”
A subtle design element helps with the building’s fit. “It’s curved because Willits [Street] is curved,” Saroki says. “And the street is curved because the [nearby Rouge] river is curved. It follows the pattern of nature.”
Above: An English antique oval table in the entryway welcomes guests to the home of Liliane Rattner, who was The Willits’ first occupant. She chose a north-facing residence, she says, “because I wanted a view of the street.” The dining room (background) is furnished with a custom glass-top table designed by Paul Feiten. Beside the framed Native American moccasins, which were purchased in Sedona, Ariz., is an 18th-century Welsh china hutch that displays early-period American plates. All Oriental rugs in the home are more than a century old.
Above: Feiten says the walls were finished in terra-cotta Venetian plaster “for the gutsiness and to take away from the subdivision edge of a brand-new building.” The large-format painting by Brian Barr is from the David Klein Gallery, Birmingham. Silk tone-on-tone draperies are interlined with bump cloth, which deadens sound, blocks light, and adds body, Feiten says.
Above: “I don’t refer to myself as a collector,” Liliane Rattner says of her art, 10 pieces of which came from the David Klein Gallery. “I have bought things to put on the walls of my home just for the joy of it.” Among them is the large landscape by William Glenn Crooks and a small figurative piece to the right by Emilio Cruz, both from David Klein. Rattner brought many furnishings from her former home, including the sofa (reupholstered in mohair) and a leather wingback chair in orange, which suits her, she says, because “I’m bold.” Feiten took several of Rattner’s existing furnishings and gave them new life, he says.
Above: An antique table displays snuffboxes, many older than 150 years. Also showcased is a shoe from Krakow, Poland, that a girlfriend gave to Rattner’s mother when she left the country.
Above: The living space of young restaurant entrepreneur Jeremy Sasson reflects the talents of local artisans. A custom wall unit by Chris Wilson of Distinct Custom Furniture with Lauro Preto wood veneer from Oakwood Veneer Co., Troy, gives the 55-inch television a hearth-like feel. The large leather sectional is by W. Schillig from Gorman’s, where he also purchased the chairs. The onyx-top coffee table is illuminated from beneath. Partly visible in the entry hall is “Popaganda” art by Ron English from the Jonathan LeVine Gallery, New York.
Above: In the master bedroom, framed Japanese Fabric Pattern Sets by Shepard Fairey lend contrast to the fawn-colored, veneer-like cork wall covering, which is applied like wallpaper or adhesive tiles. Below: Three urns punctuating Jeremy Sasson’s entry hall are constructed from birch-branch cross sections. The landscape photograph, Heaven on Earth, is by Peter Lik. Heidi Rebeaud, of Trash to Treasure Faux Finishing Co., Sterling Heights, created the slightly metallic wall effect with hand-laid stencil over troweled plaster.
Above: Custom shelving by Nick Anthony of HSI Millwork Inc. — who did all the millwork in the home — showcases the owner’s extensive book collection in the library, which is separated from the master suite by draperies. Dakota Jackson desk chairs are upholstered with Clarence House fabric. Displayed below a mixed-media piece is the owner’s large collection of Military Challenge Coins, which function like calling cards among members of the armed services. The homeowner, who has special permission from the Navy to represent aircraft aviation to the civilian community, wears the helmet when he flies off carriers.
Above: (from left) Guests are invited to leave their mark on the large rectangular dining table of stained maple. The owner supplies a hammer and letter stamps, circa 1930s. A reading corner of the living room is furnished with Le Corbusier chairs, linen draperies, and art pieces, including a miniature Calder-style sculpture. The well-traveled owner, who calls himself a “big kid,” bought the vintage German police car in Lucerne, Switzerland. Below: Dark slate on the floor and one wall of the entry provides a clean backdrop for authentic Knoll Barcelona chairs and comic-book cover paintings purchased in Paris. Other accents include Running Man (1970), by Peter Max and a Design Within Reach Artichoke Lamp.