Birmingham resident Heather Alexander was born in Calcutta, India. Her forefathers had been there since the 1700s to participate in the colonization of that country. But after the independence of India in 1947, Heather’s family, like many other British nationals, gradually relocated to England — first to Carlisle (on the border of Scotland), then to London. Heather ended up moving to Metro Detroit in the 1980s.
Considering her background, it’s no surprise to discover that Heather’s charming 1920s Tudor-style home — and even her garden — are chock-full of treasures that reflect her interesting heritage and her extensive travels.
“Possibly because of my formative years in India, I am very attracted to exotic flowers and shrubs,” says Alexander, the principal of a search and selection firm that places automobile executives. “So along with the typical hydrangeas and roses, my English-style garden, located in the front of house, has Voodoo lilies, which were prolific in Darjeeling where my mother grew up, as well as Canna lilies (my absolute favorites), Toad lilies, black Dahlias and Bed of Nails, a tropical plant that looks like a cactus and is absolutely stunning. I also have many accent trees that are weeping, contorted or twisted to add character. The garden has evolved dramatically since I moved to this house in 1994. I started almost from ground zero. But for the past several years, Brian Rankel (from B and D Garden Design in Royal Oak) and I have collaborated together to create the garden as it is today.”
When you enter the home, you are once again reminded of Alexander’s background. Straight ahead, in the foyer, a black-and-white photograph of the SS Ranchi, the ship that she and her family took from India to England, sits proudly above an antique American wooden desk. And the Birmingham resident’s intriguing living room is just a few steps away.
With its dramatic two-story ceiling, large leaded glass picture window, original red glazed brick floor and wrought iron staircase that leads to a second floor balcony, the living room has a medieval, mini-castle kind of feeling that acts as a perfect backdrop for the owner’s furniture, fabrics and accessories. And to build on that feeling, her interior designer, Richard Ross of Richard Ross Designs in Royal Oak, used a sage green silk Donghia fabric (complete with images of lions, crowns, birds and shields woven into it) for the draperies and two upholstered chairs. “I fell in love with this fabric because it seemed so appropriate for the room,” Alexander says. “And I bought the whole bolt because I didn’t want anyone else to have it.”
Ross also decided to place a round zodiac table that was purchased several years ago in Scotland in the center of the room. Made out of wood and brass and of Spanish origin, the table is more than 300 years old. “It’s very unusual. I’ve maybe seen one other,” she says. “It has all the signs of the zodiac carved into it. And now the open center is filled with my partner Tom Weiz’s antique cane collection.” The two wooden tables that sit on either side of the window were originally in a castle in Italy. “They were in bits when I bought them and had to be completely restored.” Alexander says. “I think they look rather grand now.”
Other treasures in the room include a copper and brass Tibetan teapot, two Tibetan prayer wheels and a crystal Buddha, all of which were once in Alexander’s childhood home in India.
But not everything in the room is old. For example, a large gold leaf reproduction mirror hangs above the fireplace. “When you mix repro with old, people think it’s the real thing,” Alexander says. “You can get by with being a little slippery.” Adds Ross: “I think the living room’s chandeliers and sconces are very important elements here. Made out of distressed iron and crystal beads. I custom-ordered them from Nierman Weeks, and they actually look original in this old house even if they’re not.”
In the dining room, a credenza, purchased in Italy, looks old, but it is also a reproduction. Above it hangs a mirror from France that was originally a headboard. “It had fabric in the middle, but we replaced it with glass,” Alexander says. And the oval fluted brass tray that hangs on a nearby wall has special meaning. “It was my grandfather’s mail tray when he lived in India,” she says.” When the mail came, the domestic help would present it to him on this tray. It’s a perpetual memory for me.”
An addition to the kitchen had been made before Alexander purchased the house. But she never really liked it. So, in 2006, she gave Richard Ross “carte blanche” to re-do it. “I decided to use rift-cut oak for the cabinets because oak is a wood that has been used for centuries,” Ross says. “I also added crown molding and some bookcases to give the kitchen a bit of an old school look. So even though it’s a modern kitchen, I think it really flows with the rest of the house and maintains its integrity.”
Adds Alexander, “Because I’m really partial to the color green, I chose spring green-colored granite for the island and a sage green-colored subway tile from Ann Sacks for the backsplash.
“I find green really calming,” she says. “It also makes me feel like I’ve brought the garden inside, and that makes me very happy.”