Even before Ty Pennington led the cheer to “Move that bus!” Savannahians were trying to sneak a peek inside the Simpson home. | Photography by Richard Leo Johnson
The jewel-toned, two-story dwelling at the corner of 55th and Abercorn streets may have dethroned the Mercer Williams House as the most talked about and photographed residence in Savannah. That kind of thing happens when the national spotlight shines on the city like it did in November as the popular (and tear-inducing) ABC show, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” selected Jim and Carmen Simpson and their three children as the beneficiaries of a brand new home.
In 106 hours over six days, J.T. Turner Construction led subcontractors, vendors and thousands of volunteers through a high-speed demolition and building process similar to a barn-raising. That resulted in a streamlined interpretation of a Queen Anne Victorian that sits on a corner lot in the Ardsley Park neighborhood. The striking home, designed by the local firm Hansen Architects, invites passersby to stop and consider it — not only for its welcoming presence where a cramped, dilapidated 1940s red brick carriage house once stood, but also for the story within its walls.
The home’s interior was kept a closely guarded secret until the Savannah episode aired on Jan. 16. The windows were shrouded with coverings, and access was limited to those contractually obligated by the series. With the veil finally lifted, the Simpsons, grateful for the outpouring of support and love, are welcoming the community into the home that it helped to build.
A Warm Welcome
A bricked walkway leads to a sweeping wraparound veranda framed by unfussy gingerbread arches and appointed with black rocking chairs, the kind meant for sipping sweet tea and chatting with neighbors. Old crates and galvanized tubs are planted with whimsical Billy buds — evidence that the family that lives behind the glass-paneled front door doesn’t take itself too seriously despite the recent attention.
Just inside, a wide entry hall paved with a checkerboard of black and white tiles runs from the front to the back of the house. It’s a thoroughfare for children at play — and it’s the seam that binds the first-floor living spaces together.
A recent family photo showing Jim and Carmen beaming along with their children — Isaac, 8, Katelyn, 4, and Zoë, 2 — hangs above a painted hall table. It’s a reminder that this 3,300-square-foot home was inspired in special ways by each one of them.
“We told them everything of who we are,” said Carmen, describing the show’s extensive application process, “and they picked the elements to focus on.”
Corinthian columns outline the entrance into a comfortably elegant living room, painted a rich shade of indigo. The almost floor-to-ceiling, double-hung windows bathe the room in natural light. A tray ceiling draws the eye heavenward, adding drama and flair. An impressive gas fireplace warms the space, which is flanked by twin velvety scrolled sofas that invite pleasant conversation.
“We’re just learning how to use this thing,” said Jim, adjusting the level of heat in the fireplace. “It’s got a remote control, but I haven’t figured that out yet.”
A wide arch opens the living room to the kitchen, which was inspired by Paula Deen, who donated her time and expertise to the network’s team of interior designers as well as food from her restaurants for the volunteers. Activity revolves around a tall baker’s table that serves as a center island. White marble countertops and industrial stainless steel appliances afford the kitchen modern sophistication while the distressed tin ceilings and white wooden cabinets give the feeling that Jim and Carmen have been making family meals in this kitchen for years.
“I like to describe it as old meets new,” Jim said of the family’s new digs.
The kitchen flows organically into a vibrant formal dining space, which was planned and decorated by graduate students from the Savannah College of Art and Design as part of a competition judged by Facebook followers and the show’s host, Ty Pennington. The deeper-than-deep blue walls are brightened by white moldings and scrolled chairs. A chandelier fashioned from mercury-silver curlicues lights the space.
French doors open onto the back porch and yard, which sports a swimming pool, an updated holdover from the old house. The pool’s safety covering is so strong, “five grown men can stand or walk across that cover without it falling in,” said the protective dad, who’s also a big fan of the new gas grill.
Room to Grow
Another set of French doors off the porch leads into 2-year-old Zoë’s therapy room, a space specially designed to strengthen his mobility and cognitive skills. When Zoë was born almost six weeks prematurely, his doctors did not think he would live beyond his first 24 hours. He had detached retinas, swelling of the brain and respiratory difficulties that kept him from breathing on his own. He defied the dismal prognosis and thrived, though he needs physical, visual, speech and occupational therapy.
Zoë’s therapy room is a feast for the senses. A sketched scene of downtown Savannah’s riverfront warehouses spans the room’s walls. An enormous red and white model riverboat acts as his obstacle course, challenging him to climb and maneuver about. Padded mats, pillows and stairs create a soft play area. A ceiling-mounted projector directs different images on white mats to heighten Zoë’s visual development. His favorite pattern is the moving water. The cork floor is both environmentally sustainable and soft enough to prevent injuries from falls.
“Zoë needs lots of room to move around to get stronger,” said Carmen. “And when he’s in a pleasurable state, he’s open to learning more.”
Just down the hall, what appears to be a closet door opens up into an elevator, 8-year-old Isaac’s favorite feature of the house. He demonstrates its safe use for all newcomers.
Zoë, however, most often chooses the craftsman-style staircase that leads to the second-floor bedrooms and baths. The white wallpaper with a trellis of green bamboo lends a cheerful note.
Each bedroom represents an entirely different world. Accessed through a sliding castle door, 4-year-old Katelyn’s bedroom is a princess’s dream. A mural by Savannah artist Tiffani Taylor illustrates an enchanted countryside on the other side of faux stone walls. The bed is a replica of Cinderella’s coach, a charmed place for a sleeping beauty. Stairs lead up to a lantern perfect for costumed tea parties and the whispers of handsome princes.
“I say this room is just like Disney’s ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,’” said Carmen.
Olympic snowboarder Shaun White and his brother Jesse, a graphic designer, took charge of Isaac’s out-of-this-world room, personalizing it with skateboard decks fashioned as bookshelves and a desk. A remote-controlled PlayStation puts Isaac in the middle of the video games. A small sofa transforms into the base of a Murphy bed that automatically opens and collapses, changing his bedroom into a playroom with the press of a button. Three small flat-screen televisions are mounted to the ceiling, and a larger one is centered on a writable Plexiglas wall.
“It’s where we can list his chores,” chuckled Jim.
Zoë’s room at the other end of the hall is equipped with its own accessible shower and automatic sink. The red and white color scheme carries into a Roy Lichtenstein, Pop Art-influenced space reminiscent of a modern art museum. Designed to stimulate his senses, large playable piano keys, as seen in the movie “Big,” are built into the floor. Padded stairs lead up to his elevated bed, challenging him to build his muscles through climbing. A padded picture frame, a half table and a chair mounted to the wall encourage him to pull up without the danger of bringing the furniture down on top of himself.
In the center of the upstairs rests a sanctuary for Jim and Carmen. Their master suite features wallpaper and bedding custom-designed by SCAD students. The high-pitched ceiling and Old Chicago-style brick walls create a grand but intimate space that evokes Old-World charm. A working gas fireplace lends an air of romance.
A claw-foot tub and antique touches in the master bath are balanced by modern conveniences, such as a dual-head shower and a square toilet. The walk-in closet has enough space for a dressing room.
A long chalkboard leans against one wall displaying a list of “The Simpson’s Big Dreams for Others.” It reaffirms the couple’s commitment to active community service. As lead pastor for the new City Church that opened in February on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Jim remains focused on giving back.
The chalkboard rests next to a door that opens onto a balcony overlooking their neighborhood. People wave as they walk their dogs to the nearby pocket parks. Cars slow to catch a glimpse of the now-famous house.
“I would never have imagined we would live in a place like this in Savannah,” said Carmen.
Added Jim: “This is a major inheritance for our family that will hopefully impact our grandkids.”
The Simpsons’ Stats
Owners: Jim and Carmen Simpson
Location: Ardsley Park
Year built: 2010
Square footage: 3,300
Accomodations: 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths
Time to complete: 106 hours