APRIL 11, 2016 | MOLLY FIENNING
Charleston, South Carolina, prides itself on history and historic preservation. Books are written about the intelligent urban design and charming original architecture of this Southern city’s bustling downtown—which is a full century older than our country. Thus it is definitely not customary (or even a good idea) to build a new home on these streets. But my husband and I were about to do it anyway. No pressure, or anything.
My husband, Ted, and I settled here three years ago and initially hoped to restore a “Charleston single”—a signature style of house one room wide, multiple rooms long, with double covered porches. Charleston porches serve a dual purpose: to take advantage of the passing breeze and to shade the interior rooms from sun on hot and humid Charleston days.
Ted is an aviator for the Marine Corps and a local Carolina boy. I am what the South calls a “damn Yankee”—as in, “Yankees visit, and damn Yankees stay”—a breed more and more common on the progressive and evolving streets of Charleston. Born and raised in New York City, I’m a cofounder of Babiators, a children’s sunglasses company I started with my husband and our college friends. We have two young boys and moved here for the outdoorsy and family-oriented lifestyle Charleston offers while still being an urban, culinary, and creative enclave.
Downtown Charleston is the country’s first historic preservation district, established in 1931. It also has one of (if not) the strictest Boards of Architectural Review (BAR) in existence, approving every exterior detail that can be seen from a sidewalk—the finish of a lantern, the walkway’s brickwork pattern, or the number of panes on each window. In an environment that leans toward disliking change, this board has the complex role of preserving Charleston’s historic cityscape while still looking to the future as the city grows.
After touring many historic homes downtown—some too big, some too small, most way too much work—none felt like it was our house. We loved Charleston’s traditional antebellum exterior yet wanted a more modern and loftlike NYC interior. My husband noticed a lot for sale on the downtown waterfront and asked, “What if we built our dream home now?” We visited it and loved it. We jumped at the opportunity to build and haven’t looked back.
The first step in building is finding the right architect. A good friend recommended Heather Wilson, and I fell in love with her work immediately. Heather is a master in the art of the modern farmhouse. We worked with her to create architectural plans to present to the BAR. Before your BAR presentation, there is a prerequisite to visit downtown neighbors over cocktails and pimento cheese (did I mention we Charlestonians like our cocktails?) and present your plans to them for informal feedback. Barring one or two unenthusiastic folks who refused to meet, they were wonderfully sweet—even if a little, and understandably, uncertain of our project. Our neighbors have decades of experience protecting what is special to them. Many are well versed in the building arts—aesthetics, engineering, and architecture—and have a lot of thoughtful detail to add. Hearing their preferences, concerns, and ideas turned out to be incredibly helpful.
After five or six cocktail parties, we were scheduled to present to the BAR at the city offices. Butterflies in our stomachs, Ted, Heather, and I showed up with our plans and a small 3-D house model to meet the experts who held the fate of our home in their hands.
The BAR can be intimidating. A formal panel of six members, including the city architect, sits at a long table with placards and notepads, with the power to defer or alter the dreams of those seen as a threat to Charleston’s well-loved city streets. They are a formidable group, and their decisions can make a big difference in the outcome and timing of any build-out in the historic district.
Again, we came prepared to listen and carefully took notes of each member’s concerns before they opened the floor up for comments, which the preservation groups and a few neighbors readily provided. They liked our design but felt it was too close to the street itself. We had requested a mix of brick and wood—they wanted to see all brick. They suggested that we add “breakaway” brick to the first floor of the house in order to mask that we’re 12 feet off the ground, a height mandated by city flood-zoning rules. One neighbor even commented that it appeared the house was ready for a biblical flood to pass under it. Good thing or bad thing, I wondered? They politely denied our project first on issues of height, scale, and mass. This is standard procedure, a rite of passage, and though it’s unpleasant to get rejected, it felt like part of the process of building downtown.
So, it was back to the drawing board with architect Heather. She had initially designed the house as a long-based U-shape to provide a private garden off the street. We kept the shape, but flipped the orientation of the design to maximize light, breezes, and water views. We also lowered our ceiling heights a few inches and raised the ground level to reduce the overall presence of the house on the street as the BAR suggested.
For our second trip to the BAR, we were even more nervous than before! But the BAR signed off on our updated plans, improved by their feedback. Now we were ready to move on to phase two: building a home while expecting our second son—better off for having the Holy City’s blessing.