By James Haynes
The Cullman Times
Working from home? Just about anyone is able to do that. What makes Lee Powell’s downtown loft special is that it is right above his insurance offices on Second Avenue in Cullman. Living with his wife and daughter in the floor above his offices, Lee is a throwback to an earlier time.
“It’s not that different, really, from having a regular house for us. Having access to your own outdoor space whether it be a courtyard or decks makes all the difference,” he said. Pragmatically, Lee noted, “It’s really nice to not have a commute at all.”
Lee, a Cullman native, has been in the insurance business since 2007. Lee started out with Cotton States Insurance before Cotton States became fully integrated under the Country Financial umbrella at the beginning of this year. This amounted to a sign change for Lee, who is currently a Financial Representative for Country Financial.
Before getting his start in insurance, Lee attended Tulane University and then Athens State earning a degree in History and English with a teaching certificate. While at Athens State, Lee met Ginger, whom he began dating and then married in May of 2003.
Lee worked for TSA with American Airlines and other odd jobs while going to college. After he graduated, he taught and coached football in the Huntsville and Mobile areas. In 2007, he purchased the building and loft and began remodeling it. The building had various uses throughout its history first as a bottling company for Royal Crown, a paint store later, and most recently as Johnson Motors. He opened it as an insurance office in 2008, and he and his family moved into the loft in the summer of 2010. They lived there for about nine months before April 27th, when the EF4 tornadoes that ripped through Cullman destroyed the building.
Rather than moving elsewhere in Cullman, Lee chose to salvage what he could of the old building and rebuild in the same spot. “We owned the lot, and didn’t own another commercial lot,” he said. “We needed a house and an office again, so it just made sense.”
Lee met with Birmingham architect Lance Black to rebuild on the site of the old building. “We were real pleased with the work that Lance was able to do,” he said. It was a little over a year after breaking ground on the new site until Lee and his family returned to the newly-rebuilt loft in December.
In the meantime Lee, Ginger, and their 4-year-old daughter Emmaline stayed with Lee’s parents Lachlan and Cheri Powell. “They had a full furnished basement with an efficiency kitchen, so it wasn’t bad. However, we did just have the one bedroom and closet for the three of us, so it is nice to have a little elbow room now,” he said.
Lee named some changes he had made when planning to rebuild: “We had always wanted a garage, simply because we needed storage, and so we didn’t have to park the car on the street all night.”
“Having a yard was pretty important, especially with a little girl. We were able to get it walled off, so it’s private with locking gates…In all honesty, it’s really no different from living in a typical house.”
Lee is one of only a handful of people in Cullman who owns such a loft. “There’s not many that work and live in the same building,” he said. “In times past, living in a loft just made economic sense.”
Lee’s wife Ginger concurs that living there suits them well. “We love living above the insurance agency. It is very convenient,” she said in an interview from West Point Elementary, where she is a guidance counselor. “We are within walking distance from a few local shops that we frequent, as well as St. John’s, the church that we attend.”
“It feels just like any other home to us; having a full garage and access to our own personal back yard has made it feel like any other home.”
The loft and business are just a block or two away from town neighborhoods, with easy access to downtown parks. “You’ve got the playgrounds near you and the grassy area between Richter chapel and Weiss cottage.” Lee said. Lee and Ginger plan to send Emmaline to Little Lambs Preschool at St. John’s in the fall.
Emmaline, Ginger said, “always referred to it as ‘my red house.’ She doesn't remember much about living in the building prior to the April 27th tornado, but she does remember the color, which at the time was red.”
“Even though it isn't red in color now, we still refer to it as our red house.”
After having made it through a remodel, a tornado, and subsequent rebuilding, Lee summed up the dual-functioning building succinctly: “It’s our home.”