Tiny before tiny houses were cool: 8 secrets of the 1920s-30s Cliff Court Cottages in Highland Park

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author for Bham Now

Tiny houses—are they in, are they out? When something is a classic, trends don’t matter. Tucked away in Birmingham’s historic Highland Park neighborhood, Cliff Court Cottages fit that bill. They’re tiny but not too tiny, and forever in demand.

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author

Bham Now has the scoop thanks to Stan Nelson, a Birmingham interior designer and musician who has resided in one of the cottages for 26 years.

1. English cottages, they are not

“Everyone says, oh, those beautiful English cottages. They’re really not,” Nelson said. “They’re Spanish, or more accurately Mission Revival style. But we’ve Anglicized them over the years.”

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
“If you’ve ever been to Carmel, California, you’ve seen this before. This is what Carmel looks like.”—Stan Nelson. (Photo by author)
2. Like Europe, they have tourists

The European charm of the courtyard community is rare in Birmingham, and people wait years for the opportunity to buy. Nelson himself waited 10 years.

“You have to be at the right place at the right time. I would come up here on Sunday afternoons. A lot of people do that. We call them ‘the tourists.’ They come up and ask, is anything ever for sale? And we so, no, nothing’s ever for sale. Because it really isn’t.”—Stan Nelson

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Charming detail abounds in every nook and around every corner. (Photo by author)
3. You must like your neighbors

The residents of Cliff Court Cottage are an eclectic group, from a retired Miami Herald foreign correspondent to an interior designer/musician. Ages range from mid-twenties to none of your business. And, yet…

If there’s one word that defines this tiny Birmingham community, it’s close-knit.

They help each other. They get along without a homeowners’ association. And everyone pitches in money and/or labor to maintain the landscaping.

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author
4. Known history

“The Cliff Court Cottages were built in 1925. Parish and Byrd were the developers; Mcwhinney and Clark were the architects; Fraser Nurseries were the landscape architects. This was the first known example of a bungalow court development in the city.”—Richard Dabney, ‘Birmingham’s Highland Park’

The first of eight cottages in the development was constructed in 1925, and the last in the early 1930s. The original owners of cottage No. 1 were the Honorable and Mrs. Charlie Brown, a local judge and his wife.

“They went on a European tour for their honeymoon, and he carried her over this threshold.”—Stan Nelson

Nearly a 100 years later, cottage No. 1 is only on its second owner.

A large duplex anchors the far end of the courtyard, and two rows of four cottages line the sidewalk on either side. Each cottage features a servant’s buzzer in the dining room. That’s where certainty ends and theory begins.

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author
5. The theories

Let’s start with the most common theory, which would explain the large duplex in the back. 

“Pretty much everyone agrees that this (the duplex) was to be servants’ quarters, with a big house in front, because every other house on this street is a big house. These were the years right before the Depression, so the big house never got built. The cottages were Plan B.”—Stan Nelson

With the first cottages built in 1925, before the stock market crash of 1929, perhaps the developers of Cliff Court Cottages were particularly prescient.

The theories drill down from there, and Nelson has a couple of his own.

The servants’ buzzers in the cottage dining rooms? If the big house did not come to be, then perhaps the servants’ quarters did not end up in the duplex, either.

“Servants might have lived in shacks across the alley, with what the situation was in 1929,” Nelson said. (A reminder that things were far from perfect in that era.)

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author

How about the cottages’ incredible craftsmanship? “They were not hastily put together. They’re beautifully designed and have lots of wonderful architectural features,” Nelson said.

“I’ve wondered maybe if the big houses up on Argyle and Redmont Roads brought European craftsmen here. I’ve always envisioned that maybe the European craftsmen lived down here and worked up there.”—Stan Nelson

It’s not uncommon for Nelson to encounter descendants of early residents. One day, after he retires, he may take on the task of researching their genealogy to see if his theory is right.

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author
6. Tiny living in 1925

Birmingham’s Cliff Court Cottages are small and efficiently laid out, but they are not small to the extreme, like the tiny houses trend of the 21st century.

The 1920s craftsmen used a few tricks to make spaces multifunctional, particularly the kitchen.

Each kitchen featured a fold-down ironing board (shown below, to the left of the window).

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author

Today, two cottages still have the original kitchen table, which folds up into a built-in storage cabinet.

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Original built-in storage featuring a fold-down kitchen table (photo by author)

The rooms are just large enough to be functional, and high ceilings make them feel even larger. Each has two bedrooms, one jack-and-jill bathroom, a living room, a dining room and a kitchen.

It’s enough room for a space-savvy couple to reasonably raise a child to adulthood. The Browns, the original owners of cottage No. 1, did just that.

Distinct architectural features on each cottage make this tiny Birmingham community appear like a centuries-old European neighborhood—and anything but cookie-cutter.

7. Tiny living in 2018
Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author

Open things up: As an opera singer, Nelson needed a music room more than a second bedroom. As an interior designer, he was up to the challenge of making the small cottage work for him.

He opened up the doorway between the living room and former second bedroom. When you walk inside, you have an open view of the music room, living room and dining room. It makes a small home feel spacious.

Go for big furniture: “This is about as much furniture as anyone has in their living room,” Nelson said (see photo below). “A lot of people put small furniture in small spaces. It really works better if you put big furniture in small spaces.”

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author

Choose a few statement pieces: One of Nelson’s major statement pieces is a late 1700s, probably northern Italian headboard that once belonged to the glamorous 1930s star Grace Moore.

He found it in antique store in a Atlanta 10 or 12 years ago when he was doing a room at a Birmingham Decorator’s Showhouse. When he heard the headboard’s history, he couldn’t leave with out it.

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author

“Grace Moore was first a Broadway star, then an opera star—she sang at the Met—then she was a movie star. She was nominated for an Oscar for a film called ‘One Night of Love’ (1934). At the very height of her career, she died in a fiery plane crash with the prince of Sweden.

“I have her autobiography, and she mentions buying this bed while she was living in Italy.”—Stan Nelson

8. Everyone’s a gardener

As you probably noticed in the photos throughout this post, the Cliff Court Cottages boast stellar garden features. That’s the result of each and every homeowner’s combined efforts.

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author

If you are lucky enough to get the rare chance to buy in this Birmingham community, get ready to work it (in the garden, that is).

Birmingham, Alabama, Cliff Court Cottages, tiny houses
Photo by author
Do you know something about the Cliff Court Cottages in Birmingham that we missed?

We’d love to here from you!

For a homes story on the opposite end of the spectrum, read about modern modular homes here.