Inside Shadowlawn: Meet Randy and Lauren Riehl – caretakers of one of Decatur’s historic homes

By Deborah Storey | Living 50 Plus

With thousands of lights, hundreds of round glass ornaments, wreaths, garland and trees, Dr. Randy and Lauren Riehl transformed Shadowlawn, one of Decatur’s prestigious historic homes, into a winter wonderland.

Inspiration for the 150-year-old home’s holiday décor stemmed from the Riehls’ trip to Paris in the summer of 2022.

“They have all their beautiful shops and cafes decorated with elaborate entrances. I got inspired by that,” Lauren said.

To bring their vision to life, which featured pastel pink and green round ornaments surrounding the entryway, and a wreath made of the ornaments on the front door, the Riehls received help from their former neighbor Justin Hall.

“We used garland as a base and secured it around the door and then secured all of the ornaments to the garland,” Lauren said.

“With over 1,000 zip ties,” Randy added.

The Historic Decatur Christmas Tour selected Shadowlawn as a site for the 2023 tour on Dec. 9, which featured homes, churches and historic sites in Old Decatur and Albany.

“This is the first time Shadowlawn is going to be on the tour and it is the home’s 150th birthday. The tour is a great way to showcase and celebrate the house,” Lauren said.

Randy, 57, and Lauren, 40, started decorating for Christmas in October.

“We basically just skipped over fall and went straight to Christmas. We didn’t get the first pumpkin or mum,” Lauren Riehl said.

In the home’s interior, the Riehls decorated the men’s parlor and women’s parlor for Christmas and set up the dining room for a holiday meal.

Decorating Shadowlawn for Christmas represents a dream come true for Decatur native Lauren.

As a child, Lauren always admired the magnificent house on Line Street in Decatur as she walked to a friend’s house.

The Riehls bought the 150-year-old Shadowlawn — named for the towering oak trees shading the lawn — in December of 2020.

“One of my really good friends lived behind the house,” Lauren said. “I would go over there and play and pass Shadowlawn on the way to her house and always admired it. It was a dream house for me. I about fainted when I found out the house was available when we were in the market to purchase because I just couldn’t believe I would have the opportunity to live there.”

Even though it was built in 1874, it was in surprisingly good condition thanks to previous owners.

“It was very well taken care of,” said Lauren. “We really just went in and did minor cosmetic things.”

Instead of consulting with a decorator, Lauren took on the project of redoing the place herself.

“Lauren’s got a flair for making things look pretty, and decorating,” Randy said. “I can’t take any credit for that because it was all her.”

Shadowlawn is Decatur’s Tara, featured proudly on billboards, the historic society website, a mural and in publications including Southern Living. The Greek Revival-style mansion is located at 604 Line St. N.E. in Old Decatur, across the street from Frazier Park. In the late 1800s, Dr. William Gardner Gill, president of the Morgan County Medical Society, lived there with his wife Elizabeth.

Randy, an orthopedic surgeon who grew up in Huntsville, went to the University of Alabama in Birmingham and started his medical practice in Decatur. He is president of the National Clinical Orthopaedic Society and has two children from a previous marriage.

Living at Shadowlawn is something of a dream come true for him, too.

“For me it’s fantastic,” said Randy. “It’s like living in a piece of history and living in a museum. It’s quite a blessing.”

He takes seriously his responsibility to the historic property.

“It’s one of those houses that I just appreciated and loved,” Randy said. “Little did I ever imagine a chance of living in it or being a steward of it. Even though we purchased the house and we own it, it’s more of a stewardship for this piece of history.”

His “calling” for the house, he said, “is just to maintain it and preserve it. That’s become a hobby of mine since we got it.”

Best they can guess, the house is roughly 4,000 square feet, which may or may not include the basement.

The Riehls credited the previous homeowners, Glynn and Kathy Tubb, for maintaining and preserving the house.

“They were there for 40 years and we would not have the Shadowlawn we have today if it weren’t for them. They really brought it back to life,” Lauren said.

The Riehls updated with new paint, hardware, lighting and countertops.

Rearranged cabinets in the kitchen created an “upstairs entertainment center or beverage center,” Randy explained. The main kitchen area has refinished oak floors with modern whitewash — “not your typical brown wood veneer finish.”

When the house was built, light came from oil lamps.

“We still have one of the original fixtures. It’s been electrified,” Randy said. “The reservoirs for the oil lamp candles are still on that fixture, where you would remove the cap and fill it with oil in the evening and light it.”

The couple purchased new pendant lighting, some from a French importer in Atlanta. The idea was that “big chandeliers would take it back to a little more prestigious time.”

One surprise that emerged during renovation was that the upstairs had not been rewired. The attic still had old knob-and-tube wiring.

“We had to take all that down and bring it up to code for current safety features,” Randy said.

The basement was the location of the original coal furnace.

“There’s a coal chute and a chimney that ran down to the basement level where the coal furnace would feed into that to heat the house,” said Randy. “It was a pretty dark, gloomy basement … . When they built these old houses, you had a central entry foyer and then you had rooms off to the right and left. Everything was built for airflow and ventilation to come through the house in the summertime, or close up and you built a fire.”

Chimneys on each side of the house would provide heat for upstairs and downstairs rooms.

One of Randy’s hobbies is mixology. When a friend suggested the basement would make a great speakeasy, the couple didn’t need much motivating.

“I got kind of excited about that,” he recalled.

They reasoned that with all the other renovations going on, why not add the whimsical touch of a private bar. Besides, it’s not unreasonable to think that a fancy house might have had a members-only bar in the 1900s. Because the house is on Line Street, everyone calls the basement speakeasy “Underline.”

They added a hidden door from the library, with a little opening where they can jokingly ask for a password. A full bar, refrigerator, icemaker, wine storage area, gilded ceiling and shelving complete the look.

“It really turned into a nice project,” said Randy. “It just came out spectacular.”

The Riehls invite over friends about once a quarter. Lauren’s 40th birthday party was a bash with a saxophone player, singer and Marie Antoinette theme.

“We’ve had some fantastic parties down there,” Randy said.

Randy’s family has some history of its own. Wernher von Braun recruited Randy’s late father — who graduated from LSU at age 17 — to work in the space program in Huntsville. His boss warned him that he’d never amount to anything if he agreed to the transfer from New Orleans.

“My dad said, ‘Respectfully, sir, I’d like to take that chance.’”

Randy inherited his father’s mockup of the rocket that launched the satellite Explorer I. Another nod to history displayed in the house is “artillery art.”

With a house this big, couples can have their own designated spaces with his and hers parlors.

Lauren said Randy’s has a “moody vibe” with leather, velvet and a wood-burning fireplace. It extends into a sunroom with a billiards table. Her parlor has a century-old, ornate marble fireplace with gas logs, plus crystal chandeliers and plenty of pink.

The previous owner added an old-style elevator with bars and a scissor door.

“We use it today,” Randy said.

Another unusual feature is that the veranda, or front porch visible behind the home’s four prominent columns, is “actually cantilevered and suspended in mid-air,” said Randy. “It doesn’t connect to those four columns. When they built it, they had the proper engineering to support it.”

Even though it’s “solid as a rock,” he said, “I don’t want to put 20 people out there.”

The owner who added the elevator liked to entertain and needed a place to entertain her lady friends.

“She had that little house built in the back for her to play cards,” said Lauren.

The little summer house needs renovation, which will come later.

Because last December’s big north Alabama freeze claimed much of Shadowlawn’s landscaping, replacing that is the first priority.

“There’s always something on a house like this,” Randy said.

Because the home is historic, modern features like aluminum windows aren’t allowed.

“Everything that has to be replaced, it’s got to be compatible with the year it was built,” said Randy.

They don’t seem to mind the ongoing maintenance one bit.

“It’s a privilege to be able to take care of it,” Randy said.

“We absolutely love it. We still can’t believe we live there,” said Lauren.