Southern Hospitality

A restored 19th-century Alabama farmhouse is the setting for an eagerly anticipated annual open house.

Twenty years ago, an ailing great aunt bequeathed the fifth-generation family home in Harpersville, Alabama, to Barbara Adkins with one request: She had to promise to move into the house the very evening the elderly woman passed away. Adkins, who sells contract furniture, honored the request and sold her home in Birmingham, and moved into the neglected―some said haunted―1840s dogtrot cabin nestled on 160 acres about 35 miles south of Birmingham. “Chancellor House,” as it was known, boasted broken wood siding, boarded-up windows, and heaps of newspapers and junk mail. But Adkins saw the beauty beneath the home’s neglect.

Undaunted, she rolled up her sleeves and scraped layer upon layer of wallpaper from rough-hewn plank walls. She called in contractors to refinish windows and install a modern kitchen and bathroom. The gardens were tamed. Through her efforts, Chancellor House has been reborn. Every nook and cranny tells a story, from the family antiques to 19th-century ephemera, which makes it a particularly inviting place. Adkins, who exudes warmth and cordiality, likes it that way and loves to throw parties, especially her annual Christmas party.

About 70 people attend, and venture up the drive lined with twinkling lights to mill about the home’s four high-ceilinged rooms and manicured gardens. The home’s dogtrot design, with its central open breezeway flanked by rooms on either side, enhances the flow of the party. Adkins’s prized Steinway, given to her by her piano-teacher mother, is centered in the front hall, now enclosed by double doors. And for the past three years, Victor Adkins, a respected jazz musician from New Orleans and a relative of her son-in-law, has played the piano at the party. “Music adds so much to the atmosphere of the party,” Adkins says.

Her menu is equally well considered. “I serve different things in each room so that there isn’t a concentration of people at the bar, in the kitchen, or at the dining table.” Adkins has mastered the task of spreading folks around by making the food and decor of each room an attraction. She’ll set up a buffet of offerings in the dining room, which is flanked by a couple of tall decorated Christmas trees. Appetizers and a pitcher of punch may be set up in the study on a table next to the wood-burning stove. Her large greenhouse, in the garden at the back of the house, offers more seating and more goodies. She mixes homemade fare with items purchased from local gourmet shops.

It’s a shortcut that leaves her ample time to mingle with guests. In general, the food hews toward updated Southern specialties―a mix of old favorites and new finds, much like her guest list.

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