Editor’s Note: This exclusive story appears in the Fall/Winter 2018 edition of Niche magazine, available online in its entirety here.
Long before Russ Gibson and Julie Countess built their home in Alys Beach, they were already channeling that Alys Beach vibe.
“It’s funny, when we built the Rosemary [Beach] house, we called it the ‘Alys house in Rosemary,’” Julie said, “because it actually looked like an Alys house.”
The Gibson family, including 14-year-old Madi and nine-year-old Asa, first started visiting 30A about 10 years ago. Julie said they immediately fell in love with Rosemary Beach.
“We … decided we wanted to have a place there. So, that also happened to be right about the time of the recession,” Julie remembered, laughing. “We were able to buy a distressed lot in Rosemary and built the house there using our architect Ron Domin and Doug Bock [of Domin Bock Architects].”
It was the Gibsons’ first experience building along 30A. As Rosemary Beach’s growth exploded, Julie said the family recognized that Alys was still quiet.
“So, then we could see that building in Alys was picking up. We mentioned to Ron Domin, ‘Hey, we really like Alys. We would really like to go there,’” Julie recalled. “It was actually one of our architects, he said, ‘Well, I think this is really the time. If you want to do this, this would be the time.’”
Domin’s vision was that Alys Beach would start booming so the Gibsons bought the lot in Alys and, after a year of sitting on the lot, started working with their architects to draw the Alys house.
“We knew what we liked, and having worked with Ron and Doug before, they knew what we liked, so it was not a tedious process at all,” Julie said. “It was very, very easy because we really just let them take the reins and do what they thought was best.”
That philosophy is one that Julie carried forward from building and designing the house in Rosemary.
“I would say the big thing that we learned with the home in Rosemary was to find professional you really like working with and let them do their job. For the Alys house, we had a great builder, Koast Builders. They are so conscientious. They’re just fantastic to work with,” she said. “Let them all do their thing. Let them take it and run with it and it will be wonderful.
Another one of those professionals that Julie aligned with during the Rosemary project was Erika Powell at Urban Grace Interiors.
“After we had the [Rosemary] house built and had already picked out hard finishes, I had [Erika] come in and do the furnishings,” Julie said. “I realized, from that experience, that I wanted her at the beginning of the Alys house. So, as the plans were being drawn, Erika was seeing them and working with Ron and Doug on the early design for the Alys house.”
The style of both the Rosemary house and the Alys house were very similar for the Gibsons.
“Russ and I like very clean, straightforward design with restraint. We don’t like fussiness. While Ron and Doug are great at doing detailed and elaborate homes, they can also do what we call the ‘little black dress.’
“That was what we had with Rosemary and then what we wanted in Alys also.”
Julie said the floor plans for both homes were similar, with the interiors a bit more modern in the Alys property. The home highlights functionality and symmetry and aschews the ideas of busy and complicated.
It is a departure, Julie said, from her family’s 1930s Nashville, Tenn., home.
“It has much more of a traditional feel and certainly is not as easy to live in. There’s definitely not as much of an open floor plan like we did in Alys and Rosemary,” she explained. “Actually, my two houses feel very different. I wish they all felt like the Alys house.”
Julie recalls the early days of meeting with different architects and visiting their designs before launching into their own building project.
“It was interesting, you know, some of the houses almost felt just overdone to the point that they weren’t functional,” she said. “Whereas Ron and Doug’s homes, they could incorporate really interesting design, but still be functional and live well.
“That was what really drew us to them. I feel like all of their houses just live well. They listen to what their clients want and design beautiful homes that are also comfortable.”
One of the happy surprises the Gibsons encountered during the Alys house project was as simple as a little more natural light.
“During the process of drawing the house, it was brought to our attention that we could add windows to the north side of the house,” Julie said.
“And, that light just makes all the difference in the world,” she continued. “We have the park on the front of the house, which brings in green. That, with the light bouncing off all the light is just beautiful.”
Since moving in, the family has been drawn to what Julie called the “hangout room,” an upstairs space where the whole family can gather and unwind.
“We love going up there as a family and truly just hanging out,” she said. “Erika did such a great job in there making it feel comfortable. The fabrics, you can beat them up and it’s going to be fine.”
Another family favorite is the bunk room, a common feature in many homes in the area – but with an added twist.
“I wanted it to be a space that our kids would enjoy, but not the traditional twin size beds that are usually seen in bunk rooms,” she said. “We finally decided to do a full over full so adults could sleep in there comfortably also.
“Erika’s design for the space is perfect – fun, but not too juvenile.”
Julie’s vision for the living and dining spaces in the home’s downstairs was all about togetherness.
“I wanted a space where everyone could be together and a table big enough for everyone to get around,” she recalled. “When Erika asked me about furniture, I told her I had always wanted a saarinen table. The more modern aesthetic for the furniture really spun off from there.”
She said that the house living larger in real life than it first appeared on paper has been a blessing.
“I do feel like it lives bigger than what I thought it was going to be on paper, especially the downstairs area,” she said. “It’s all about the inches there in Alys. So, between Ron and Doug and Erica and what they were able to do, it feels better than what I had imagined it was going to. I feel like they just did such a great job.”
When the Gibsons are in town, they like to bike and walk from Alys to their former community in Rosemary, one of the features that drew them to the area. Julie described her family’s perfect day on 30A, starting with a local favorite and ending with a visit to Lake Marilyn.
“We would get up and go to Charlie’s Donuts truck and get donuts. Then, we would go sit out by our pool and relax for a little bit,” she said. “We would probably go to George’s for lunch and then over to Caliza in the afternoon. Then, pedal down to Rosemary for dinner somewhere. And then … we would go back to Lake Marilyn and fish.
“That may be a lot in a day,” Julie said, laughing. “We love the quiet in Alys. Right now, Alys is so peaceful. We love that.”