Step Inside This Historic (and Thoughtfully Restored) Lowcountry Cottage
Beau Clowney talks about architectural form, scale, and vernacular with an intuitive ease, the way the rest of us might chat about the weather. He reads buildings like they are stories. The Charleston-based architect is a sucker for a structure's arc of history—the what, when, and why of a place—and how, with thoughtful edits, he can help new owners continue the narrative into a well-designed future. And should a house whisper hints of its own literary legend, Edgar Allan Poe, well then, the story becomes enchanted indeed.
Such is the lore surrounding this cottage near the southern tip of Sullivan's Island. It was built in the early to middle part of the 19th century, the same time period when the famed writer was stationed at Fort Moultrie, and when this nearby cottage is believed to have been inhabited by soldiers and officers. "That's what the island old-timers say," Clowney says. "And legend is legend." The town itself is dotted with tributes to Poe, who lived here for a year and a half: There's his namesake tavern, as well as streets bearing his name and those of his stories (Raven Drive, Goldbug Avenue).
Of Poe and Porches
In his tale "The Gold Bug," Poe writes about Sullivan's Island and describes cottages very much like this one: "Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands … frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found."
Keep Your Cool
Today, this frame building is "tenanted" by owners escaping the hectic whirlwinds of work and general busyness for some rejuvenating family beach time. They were drawn to the home's rich history, as well as its primo perch overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, with views of Mount Pleasant and Charleston across the marsh. And they loved the fact that from Poe's day to present, this intrepid, tiny cottage—with its antique glass and original heart pine walls and floors—has remained largely intact, withstanding hurricanes and the trend of turning humble beach shacks into sprawling mansions. The owners tapped Clowney to honor and safeguard its past while updating the historic, 900-square-foot home for more modern living. But first, of course, he had to elevate the cottage a full story above grade to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood codes.
Extend the Outdoors
"Our job was basically to save the life of the house," Clowney says. This one is "a classic," he explains, with "a similar center-hall, four-room floor plan of the loyalist cottages found in Nova Scotia and the Bahamas." He's referencing homes built by those loyal to the crown who fled the States during and after the Revolutionary era. As a major colonial port and hub of Atlantic trade, Charleston's architecture often echoes the Caribbean vernacular, and vice versa. "This form is one that everyone in this area loves and understands, so we wanted to bring it back to life and add freshness, while still preserving its integrity and history," he says.
Blending Old & New
The challenge was to balance the mandated new height with a bit more scale, and still respect the modest proportions of the original structure. Working with Sea Island Builders, Clowney moved an existing smaller cottage from the back of the property and attached it via a glass hyphen as a master-bedroom wing. The team kept three of its four main-floor rooms, turning two into comfy sitting rooms and a front room into a small bedroom. "We kept it raw," Clowney says, referring to the original interior walls, some of which retain the colorful patina of weathered layers of paint added over the years.
Refresh and Repurpose
The center hall, however, was wrapped in fresh shiplap (on the ceiling and walls), and a reconfigured stairway features traditional newel posts and square shoebox-shaped pickets, "in the spirit of an old sea cottage," says Clowney. He "borrowed" a portion of the fourth original room and used it to link to a new kitchen wing and living space that tucks behind the home. The addition, outfitted by interior designers MACK Home of Columbia, South Carolina, also houses a master bedroom suite.
The kitchen was key for Clowney, as it bridged old with new. To soften the transition, he kept the space "simple and clean," with all-white cabinets, white Namibian marble—"my favorite, it works great in either a casual setting or a formal one," he says—and square-edged shiplap that lends a subtle nautical sensibility. One large cypress cabinet that is hand-waxed and will fade with age counterpoints the more contemporary white, and the oven hood is finished with a textured raw plaster. "It's mellower than stainless steel," notes Clowney. Corner windows by the sink extend to the ceiling, making the room feel taller. (They didn't go lofty with the new wing's ceiling heights.) "It's all about matching roof lines and relative scale, so the new addition doesn't overwhelm the structure," he explains. A screened dining porch off the back delivers brilliant sunset views, thanks in part to unobtrusive cable rails.
Landscape architect Sheila Wertimer had her own ways of minimizing the home's sense of distance from the ground. For instance, she designed a raised, terraced front courtyard, and planted olive trees below the porch to mask the height. Meanwhile, Clowney capitalized on a few side benefits of raising the house. "It creates this wonderful, breezy, shaded living and entertaining area underneath," he says. He installed a fireplace under the new addition, an area that doubles as a pool house for Wertimer's centerpiece pool with coral-stone decking.
Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future
Like the original, the revamped home holds a few secrets and mysteries of its own. Despite the additional wing extending off the back, passersby see only antebellum architecture and vintage cottage vernacular. "From the street, no one can really tell that there's a whole new structure back there," says Clowney, pleased that it also still manages to live up to its "loyalist" eponym: loyal to its history and lore, while poised and newly polished for an equally charmed next chapter.