Hector Manuel Sanchez; Styling: Cindy Barr

Until a few years ago, Ian Crawford lived in a sleek mid-century modern ranch house in Tuscaloosa, Alabama—the kind of place you would expect a young design aficionado to furnish sparingly with biomorphic tables and vintage modern chairs. Instead, he crowded its rooms with traditional antiques. “Polite people called it cozy, but I knew it was cramped,” he says. 

Close friends teased him. “I’m not buying things for this house,” Ian would say. “I’m buying for my dream house.” 

Unexpectedly, he found his fantasy home in 2016, way ahead of schedule. 

Circa 2015
Courtesy of Ian Crawford

The good news: Though he was only 28 at the time, he was able to purchase a regal 1840s Greek Revival mansion that was just shy of 5,000 square feet. Its square columns, confectionary Italianate brackets, and airy gallery radiate a graciousness befitting the 1845 house’s backstory—it was designed by a builder, Jesse Gibson, as a wedding present for his daughter. A garden, swimming pool, and several outbuildings that fanned across 3 1⁄2 acres came with it.

The bad news: The historic house had sat empty for over five years because nobody else had wanted to take it on. Located in the tiny town of Greensboro, Alabama (population about 2,500), it had a forlorn air that went hand in hand with roof issues, damaged sills, plumbing woes, cracked plaster walls, and a sunroom with an enormous stain. The swimming pool was dysfunctional; the garden was overtaken by kudzu. 

But thanks to Ian’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and work, both he and his edifice have come a long way. 

“A lot of my family members were against it,” says Ian, who became so captivated by old houses that he got a master’s degree in preservation studies at Tulane University and now teaches at The University of Alabama. “My friends thought I was nuts, but I was awestruck.”

Ian is slowly restoring his gardens according to 19th-century architect Samuel Sloan’s plans.
Hector Manuel Sanchez; Styling: Cindy Barr

Despite having only basic carpentry skills when he started, he approached each task with curiosity rather than panic. “I just figured out how to do things. It was like taking apart Lego blocks in my mind,” he says.

His first big surprise was how ingenious and welcoming his new neighbors are. “Everybody has a skill, and they’re kind of like the old settlers who did barn raisings. They’ll lend you tools or help with a task,” he says.

His philosophy is that you don’t need to take on everything at once. You might even do as he did and fix the swimming pool first—it gave him a place to relax, think through problems, and soak away the stresses of all the frustrations inherent in renovation. 

For every low moment—say, a pipe that he and a friend forced a bit too hard, causing it to shatter and spray water everywhere—there was another moment of joy.

“I worked with a woman who marbleized the baseboards to match the mantelpiece,” he says. “It was like magic. She’d take a sponge and stab at it a little, then go over it with another sponge. Then she’d stab more with a brush and take a feather and vein it.” 

Ian’s furniture collection, much of it American Empire and Rococo Revival style, suits the house splendidly. What surprised him far more is how well Greensboro suits him.

Hector Manuel Sanchez; Styling: Cindy Barr

He enthusiastically socializes with locals. He joined a multigenerational supper club. He holds an annual fundraising dinner for the local library at his home. Last year, the theme was Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, and he decorated each room as a different train car. Every course was a new stop, and the waiters wore conductors’ uniforms. Ian delighted in every minute.

“Everyone thinks you have to go somewhere bigger than the place you came from to find happiness and make a mark,” says Ian, who was raised in Auburn, Alabama. “Often, people are so busy looking elsewhere that they don’t see the big opportunity waiting for them much closer to home.”