Text by Katie Ellis
Melanie and Ray Steele always dreamed of retiring near the water—particularly the Alabama coast. But when Ray retired a few years before Melanie, they shifted their plans, moving closer to Melanie’s job in northern Alabama. The couple soon agreed, “Smith Lake was the perfect compromise.” With nearly 500 miles of shoreline around the lake, there was a lot of ground to cover as they journeyed to find the perfect site for their waterfront oasis.
After three months of looking, they happened upon a development with an ideal spot and breathtaking lake views. The couple shared the wish list for their dream house with local builder Seth Hammer. “We really wanted a home that blended with the beautiful natural landscape,” Melanie says. So together, Seth and Melanie drafted a rough design for the cottage-style retreat and sent it to Shepard & Davis Architects in Birmingham, Alabama. Nearly one year later, their home was complete. “We couldn’t be happier with the result,”
When it came to choosing just the right furnishings and decorating the home’s interiors, Melanie says that the design scheme was quite different from their previous house. “I loved that house and the décor, but wanted something different for our new lake life,” she says. “Our vision was so different [from what we had] that, to be honest, I was afraid that I couldn’t pull it off.” Ultimately, the couple wanted an open floor plan with lots of windows so they could see the lake from every room. “Most of all,” Melanie says, “I wanted lots of shiplap, which we painted with Sherwin-Williams 7010 ‘White Duck’—walls, ceiling, trim, everything—for that light and airy feel.” Those simple design choices garnered a stunning sunlight-drenched space anchored with neutral furnishings that draw the eye to the surrounding lake vistas.
Open-concept design was the cornerstone for the Steeles’ approach to Southern style. “We wanted the living, kitchen, and dining in one big room so when our daughters and their families came to visit, we’d have plenty of room, but when it’s just Ray and me, it still feels cozy and warm,” Melanie says. “You’d think a big white room would feel sterile and cold, but it’s quite the opposite—it’s the perfect backdrop for everything.” From the moment you walk through the front door, the living room commands attention with its high ceilings, stone fireplace, and windmill-style fan. And the plush, oversize sofas draped in neutral slipcovers invite the perfect respite for relaxed lake living.
Just a few steps away awaits the family’s dream kitchen. Melanie’s kitchen wish list included a large island, a farmhouse sink, a gas stove top, a double oven, open shelving, and a screen door for the pantry. Thanks to Seth and his carpenter father, Steve, the dream became a reality. To give the kitchen a more modern look, the Steeles opted for no upper cabinets, using instead all lower shaker-style cabinetry and simple iron pulls. They balanced the all-white space with warmer wood tones.
Adjacent to the kitchen, the Steeles designed an intimate dining nook encased in windows. The space is just big enough for the table and chairs, which Melanie says welcomes the perfect place for meals, conversations, games, and even a picturesque spot to work from home. “In our old house, we had an eat-in kitchen, so we rarely used the dining room,” Melanie admits. “Now we use the dining table all the time because it’s in the main living area.” The large primitive farm table was custom-built by National Rustic in Tennessee. Melanie paired it with their old Chippendale dining chairs after having them painted white and distressed. “Ray thought I was crazy, but once he saw the final result, he had to admit it worked,” she says.
On the opposite end of the house, the Steeles’ master suite becomes a retreat of its own. The en suite and its sliding barn door create a charming combination of country style and chic sophistication. The couple agreed they didn’t need an overly large bathroom but one that was simple, practical, and pretty. With an open walk-in shower and ample built-in storage space, the en suite feels classic and efficient. “The architect did a great job fitting everything in that space,” Melanie says. “It’s so light and airy; the space feels larger than it is.”
And no Southern-style lake house is complete without a back porch to enjoy nature and a ceiling fan to keep cool. The Steeles’ tree house-like porch sits high above the dock below and is one of the family’s favorite spaces. They chose blue-toned furnishings to reflect their surroundings, and Melanie changes out the cushions with the seasons. “I’m an early riser, so on the weekends, that’s where you’ll find me—sitting on the back porch with my coffee reading a book,” she says, noting they often return to the porch in the evenings for dessert or a glass of wine. With an almost constant gentle breeze, the Steeles agree that even on warm days, their lakeside porch oasis is a comfortable place to relax. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a gloomy, rainy day or a bright, sunny day—it’s always a gorgeous day at the lake,” Melanie says.