Home Is Where the History Is

Home Is Where the History Is

The 1616 House carries Montgomery legacy

Words by Jennifer Kornegay

What motivates someone to pack up her life and move almost all the way across the country? The graceful curves of a dual staircase will do it for Cristina Cadden. In early 2020, she and her husband Spencer moved from San Diego to restore the circa 1915, and at that time, vacant, house they’d bought in the Garden District of Montgomery, Alabama. They dubbed the classic Colonial Revival structure the 1616 House—its address is 1616 Perry Street—and today, it’s Montgomery’s newest wedding and special event venue.

Cristina had been scouring the entire South for more than a year when she happened upon two candidates, one in Opelika, Alabama, the other in the state’s capital city. The Opelika house met her No. 1 criterion, but the Montgomery house had a stunning staircase, which was right at the top of her wish list too. When she saw them both in person, the 1616 House won her heart, hands-down. “The day I toured it, I stood in the front yard and cried,” she says. “I just knew this was it. This is what I’d been looking for.” They were mostly happy tears, but a few were tinged with a bit of anxiety: That really important requirement, the one the Opelika house had, was being zoned for commercial use, since the house was never intended to be their home, but instead, their business.

Back in California, the couple owned a furniture rental company that supplied the area’s wedding industry, but Cristina got tired of schlepping all their items around. “I didn’t want to keep driving everywhere; I wanted to have our own venue,” she says. They started their search in the South for a few reasons. “I actually love heat and humidity,” she says. “The summer weather here [Montgomery] is just perfect to me.” Availability and price played roles too. “We don’t have many houses like this in San Diego, and the big historic properties that are around cost like $30 million.” 

So, she got online, typed in what she was after and filtered out locations to confine the search to Southern states, pulling in potential properties from Texas to North Carolina. Fast-forward 18 months, and Cristina is weeping in the 1616 House’s large front yard. “We found out we could change the zoning, so we got it,” she says. 

Switching the zoning wasn’t easy; in the beginning, there were some tense moments with neighbors who weren’t sure they fully understood or liked what the Caddens planned to do to and with the house. But they worked hard to explain their plans and to reassure them that they’d be a positive for the area. Once they got past that, they got a dose of Southern hospitality as warm as the weather Cristina likes so much.

While she’d expected to find some grand old homes in the South, she didn’t know she’d find a sense of community. She’s also been surprised by the city’s rich history and culture. “We love it here. After that initial rough patch with the zoning, it’s been wonderful,” she says. “I was done with such a large city and love that Montgomery has a friendly, smaller town feel but still has everything you need. And the city’s past has really captivated me.”

She got a quick history lesson in her initial research on the area, but living in it has opened her eyes even more. “I just didn’t know much about the city at all, and then getting here and hearing the stories, personal stories, and seeing the sites and spots, that’s the stuff you just can’t get on Google,” she says.

She’s been equally inspired by the history of the house itself, and her and her husband’s role in its present. Built in 1913-1915 by Frank Pelzer, president of Alabama Machine and Supply Co. and director of First National Bank, the two-story, four-bedroom house boasts notable features, including a cement-tile gable roof. It makes an impressive statement with its deep uncovered porch, elaborate iron work, and stately and decorative front door and pediment. “We’ve been thrilled to hear how much people wanted to see this jewel brought back,” she says.

And back it is. The Caddens have carefully restored and renovated the house and grounds, putting emphasis on preserving significant architectural details and doing about 60 percent of the work themselves. They now reside in a house next door but lived in the house’s ballroom while they addressed issues that spanned its more-than 8,000 square feet. “It was in somewhat decent condition, but we still poured a lot of time and money into it, mainly because we wanted to do things right,” Cristina says. 

They weren’t just slapping on some paint; attention was paid to every detail. All 84 windows were scraped down to the bare wood and reglazed. They took all the peeling plaster walls and ceilings back to the lath (narrow strips of wood) to truly fix—not just cover up—cracks, and then skim coated the entire house with historic plaster sourced from South Carolina. A lot of the elaborate crown molding was intact, but some had to be repaired and some created. “We made silicone molds of the existing to repair or fill in what was missing,” Cristina says. They had to rewire the entire house, a massive undertaking. Spencer is an electrical engineer, so he has a lot of the necessary skill and knowledge, and while doing the work during the pandemic had its challenges, it came with a perk too. “I couldn’t really do anything else, so we just kept plugging away at it,” Cristina says.

There are a few areas where efforts are ongoing, and Cristina notes that more complete landscaping comes next, but the transformation is already remarkable. Step into the striking foyer, and you’re greeted by that stunning staircase rising to a large second-story landing flooded in natural light. Polished original wood floors everywhere gleam. In one of the main rooms downstairs, Cristina and her assistant have spent hours hand-gilding the walls’ molding. 

Upstairs, spaces have been designated “bride’s side” and “groom’s side,” with two bedrooms for each. The groom’s rooms contain true highlights; both boast Venetian plaster walls. One room is in hunter green, the other in a deep ocean hue. Here, the technique resulted in variegated shades of blue and the look of velvet’s texture with the slightest sheen, thanks to Carrara marble dust mixed into the tint. The blue room also provides a peek into the plaster-repair process, but one that’s rendered with an artist’s flair. Resembling an aged paper map, a patch of the original plaster pops from the sea of blue, crisscrossed by a golden path. “I loved the vintage patina of the plaster in here, so I left a bit of it visible,” Cristina says. “And after I fixed a crack, I gilded it.”

Many lucky couples have already enjoyed these rooms and the Cadden’s thoughtful touches. Many more will experience them in the coming months, as the 1616 House is staying fully booked during the wedding season. Last October, it hosted nine weddings, meaning a few Thursday and Sunday ceremonies. The house is the main draw, but the service level is appealing too. “We really curate every event and are very custom,” Cristina says. “I have the background to do that, so we offer design and a lot of things other venues don’t.”

Currently, 80 percent of the house’s bookings are from out of state, and Cristina’s happy to add tourism dollars to the city coffers. “Many have some Montgomery ties, like they once lived here or have some family here, but some are fully destination weddings, so we’re bringing 100 to 150 people who wouldn’t be here otherwise,” she says. “I love impacting the city in that way, both in terms of economic impact but also sharing the city’s story.”