A well-planned redesign transformed this run-down residence into an oceanfront gem.

By Kristen Shelton
April 30, 2008
Deborah Whitlaw Llewelyn; styling by Brian Carter

Every community has one: a cringe-worthy house that causes the neighbors to stop and stare. On Hilton Head Island, it wasn't hard to spot the offender. This 1960s vacation home―though hidden from many disapproving eyes by overgrown vegetation―needed serious updating. But when William DiGiacomo and his brother, Dennis, inherited the house in 1984, its forlorn state didn't bother them. They focused solely on the property's sweeping ocean views.

Still, they admitted, some immediate problems had to be addressed. They hired architect Merrill Pasco to connect the one-bedroom, one-bath main house with the smaller, two-bedroom, two-bath guesthouse. "At that time, we had small children, and they simply couldn't stay in the guesthouse all by themselves," says William's wife, Celine. Though the changes made the structure livable at the time, she still had big plans for the "extremely unattractive" house. "My husband and I would often walk along the beach and dream out loud about how we wanted the house to come full circle," she says. Ultimately, in 2005, they decided to take on the challenge.

Though unsentimental passersby (as well as reputable builders, and even the architect) suggested tearing down the house, the family wanted to save whatever they could. "Because of the home's age and placement on the lot, it was grandfathered in to the design-review board's setback requirements," Merrill says. "This now allows for ocean views in five out of six bedrooms."

With their waterfront house set on sturdy cinder-block piers, the family kept much of the original footprint intact. Everything else―8-foot ceilings; clamshell moldings; flimsy bifold doors; and single-pane, aluminum-siding windows―had to go. The strict coastal building codes stipulated firm adherence to the space occupied by the original house, so Merrill and builder Ernest Broome had to think creatively to design a home large enough for the family and give it the charm of an old Hilton Head home.

To provide the much-needed space without expanding the house's footprint, they transformed an unused carport into a bedroom and built a second floor with two master suites, each with its own bath. "With four children and five grandchildren, we needed as much living and sleeping room as possible," Celine says. They also expanded the too-shallow deck by knocking out a long, awkward room off the kitchen and living room. Now, raised ceilings, a neutral paint palette, six bedrooms, and six and a half baths create a comfortable yet elegant environment more in keeping with the island's architecture.

With the renovation complete, the DiGiacomos and Merrill (not to mention the neighbors) can't say enough about the results. "The compound, nestled into stepped dunes and shaded by mature live oaks, doesn't overwhelm the property," Merrill says. And Celine finally has the family home she dreamed of all those years ago. "The beauty of the layout is that the whole family can come together but still maintain separate spaces," she says. "It's a breath of fresh air."

A Decorator's Challenge
Celine shares her tips for a successful renovation.

Hire a good crew. The DiGiacomos live several states away, so Celine knew she'd need trustworthy workers on the job site. "We only came to Hilton Head four or five times during construction," she says. "That's why we were so lucky to have Merrill and Ernest working on the house." Because she'd previously worked with Merrill, Celine knew he would make decisions that would ultimately please the family and the design-review board.

Stay in scale. From the beginning, Celine insisted she wanted a beach house, not a mansion. Merrill's vision of a cottage compound nestled in the tree line was right on target. "I didn't want an obscenely massive structure," Celine says, "but I did want a comfortable, livable vacation home for my growing family." By using space efficiently, Merrill designed a home that can sleep more than a dozen people and still feel cozy.

Let in the light. Merrill removed an unusable room that prevented sunlight from reaching the interiors. Now the living spaces get so much light Celine doesn't want to cover the windows. "I purposely didn't put any fabric on them," she says. "Instead, I chose plantation shutters and natural woven shades to let in as much light and views of the ocean as possible."

Find practical furniture. To ensure that the house was functional and easy to maintain, Celine selected everything―from the black kitchen counters to the comfy couches―with practicality in mind. "I chose off-white slipcovered furniture," she says. If they get dirty, she can wash them; if they're hopelessly stained, she can replace them.

We regret that in the June 2008 issue of Coastal Living magazine, we misspelled William and Celine DiGiacomo's last name. Despite the error, we hope you enjoyed the story of their home's transformation.