Where the heart is: Allen DeCuyper and Steve Sirls
In 1998, Allen DeCuyper and Steve Sirls purchased one of Nashville’s most historic homes—the Craighead House. Built in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the Federal-style brick home would host some of Nashville’s most prominent citizens, including Charlotte Robertson (widow of James Robertson) and her daughter. The home has recently been featured in a book by Carroll van West, Nashville Architecture: A Guide to the City.
DeCuyper and Sirls have a long history of buying and renovating homes. “We’ve renovated several houses in the years that we’ve been together,” Sirls joked. “Like eighteen—and many of those we’ve moved into but many others have sold before we could move into them.”
Craighead wasn’t a discovery out of the blue for the couple though. “We’ve lived in this neighborhood since 1987, and we’ve been looking at this house for a long time. We tried to get our friend Hal Cato to buy it a long time ago,” Sirls said. “They chose not to do it because it was such a big project, but then it came on the market again and we fell for it. This place is nice, it’s secluded. The only noise is neighbors and the train, which came way after the house. The house was built somewhere around 1806, but the train didn’t come through until about 1850.”
“We bought this place in 1998,” Sirls added, “with plans to restore the old part of the house and add on the new part. The house only had one bathroom and two closets, so we definitely needed to add some stuff.”
They also knew that they had to be careful to preserve the feel of the home, however. “We called Van Pond immediately. He was brand new, but he knew the house, so we got him right over here. We wanted to do the expansion so it didn’t show from the street because it is a historic house, so the addition is set way back. There were also a number of trees we wanted to protect, too, so within that footprint we got what we needed. Van was really good with the space and he knows our personalities, so that helped. It was one of his first jobs as an architect out on his own.”
“We looked at other country federal homes,” Sirls explained. “We checked out houses of this period that were added onto. So many of them used brick, but it would have been so hard to match because the brick was all made on-site two hundred years ago, so we went with cedar for our expansion.” In the end, the Metro Historical Commission gave them an award for the sensitivity of the work on the home.
“We started the first of August and were in by January,” he said, “but we still work on it all the time. You know, you have to. We had to renovate the front porch last year. We replaced it with something that will be there for another two hundred years, we hope. We are about to start painting the new part again after seventeen years. It just takes time and a little planning because it’s hard to pay for it all at once!”
The home is furnished eclectically—it is not at all meant to be a museum. “The house is furnished with our parents’ and grandparents’ things,” Sirls said, “and things we’ve bought. It’s not period or antique, it’s just sort of us, which is my favorite thing about it.”
Still, the couple view it as a kind of responsibility to make their home as open as possible, within reason. That includes strangers. “The house is open a lot. We are part of a lot of garden tours and whenever we do that I open the house up because that’s what people really want to see…. We try to keep it so it’s presentable. And since we put the sign up a lot of people stop by. We don’t just let everybody in, of course!”
Their homes have been centers for social gatherings and philanthropy over the years. “We had the Artrageous Thank You Party here for twenty-two years—well here and another house,” Sirls explained. “Just this year, we hosted the Thomas Powell Award and Major Donor Party for Nashville CARES. We had a couple of events for Megan Barry here. Our community is very important to us.”
“We’ve never been embarrassed to open up our homes,” Sirls said. “We’ve always been diverse in opening up this home especially, not really keeping any group out, because it’s for Nashville to see, I think.”
Conservation and protecting historic sites hasn’t just guided DeCuyper and Sirls’ ethos in home remodeling. Sirls currently sits on the board of the Metro Historical Commission Foundation, and Allen served on the Commission for seventeen years.
The last decade has seen amazing advances for the LGBT community, though much remains to be done to secure the rights of the most vulnerable. And while the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges is no cure-all, it has done a great deal to cement the process of normalization that particularly gay and lesbians have enjoyed. In short, it is becoming much easier for LGBT people to make themselves at home in the wider culture, even in Middle Tennessee.
Part of that process is actually making homes for ourselves in the region—joining with the larger community in which we live and settling in amongst our neighbors. This isn’t just to keep up with the straight Jones’ and to show that we are as normal as everyone else. Aside from community centers and bars, LGBT homes are centers of communal existence, places of refuge for our friend groups to gather and our children to congregate.
So much community organizing and political action began in the kitchens and dining rooms of LGBT homes in middle Tennessee. Pride events were organized, funds were raised for CARES and other organizations, and life-long friendships were cemented in these harbors. As we move forward into the twenty-first century, the necessity of the home space for these functions may be diminishing, but the LGBT home still serves many purposes.