Historic homes still fetch buyers

60 Montagu St. listed at $13 million

The yellow brick house that sits along The Battery — arguably the most photographed stretch of historic downtown Charleston — recently was sold to a Washington, D.C., couple.

It fetched $5.4 million.

The home at 19 East Battery, which is next to the Edmondston-Alston House, has four bedrooms, a pool and a separate guest house. It was built by a wealthy New York hat maker in 1919 on a site formerly occupied by a mansion destroyed in the hurricane of 1911. The previous owner paid more than $17,000 in county property taxes on the house last year.

Bruce Dunnan, who owns a venture capital firm that focuses on wireless technology, health care services and defense-related projects, purchased the property with his wife Wendy. His brother, John, has owned a house on nearby Water Street since 2000.

"We've always admired the city for its beauty and quality of life," said Dunnan, who also owns a house in Palm Beach, Fla.

While the local real estate market overall has weakened amid the recession, real estate agents who specialize in high-end downtown Charleston homes say the slowdown hasn't affected demand for the top echelon of historic properties the peninsula has to offer. Limited to just a few dozen addresses, these elite homes often come with irreplaceable features and priceless pedigrees that can't be found or replicated in most newly built luxury properties.

The stately James Simmons House at 37 Meeting St., for example, is expected to close Friday, according to listing agent Charles Baarcke of McAlister Preferred Properties, who provided few other details. The owners listed the property for about $7.7 million,

Properties, who provided few other details. The owners listed the property for about $7.7 million, and a sale at that price would be a record for a home in downtown Charleston.

That record currently is held by the Patrick O'Donnell House, which sold to Boston-based hedge fund billionaire Jim Pallotta two years ago for $7.2 million. The 21 King St. property is back on the market listed for the same price.

Buyers are scarce in today's real estate market, and with so many choices available — combined with the uncertain economy — it's tough to persuade some would-be buyers to commit to a big mortgage. But those with the financial means to acquire one of these historic downtown properties, even in a recession, are often motivated by a different sense of urgency: the fact that the home they have their eyes on might not be available again for years, said Charles Sullivan of Carriage Properties, who represented the Dunnans in the purchase of 19 East Battery.

"A lot of buyers see it as an opportunity that may not be there again," Sullivan said.

The East Battery home had been owned by the Mason Smith family for more than 65 years. Late last month, it was sold by the 85-year-old daughter of the original buyer whose grown children didn't want to take over the property.

"They had a lot of family memories there," said Charlie Swanson of William Means Real Estate, who listed the property. "It was a real difficult decision for them to make, but they decided it was time for them to get their mother into a smaller home."

The story is similar for 39 Church St., which recently sold for $4.2 million to a local family who had been waiting for the property to come on the market, said Tommy Bennett of Carriage Properties, who represented the buyers in that deal. Before the sale, the home had been owned by another local family for decades, he said.

That's not to say the entire high-end housing market is recession-proof. Some well-heeled buyers are reining in their spending and putting home purchases on hold, said agent Pam Harrington of Pam Harrington Exclusives.

"For downtown and the Kiawah markets, the properties under $2 million are selling and the properties over $4 million and $5 million are selling," she said. "That area in between, that is kind of a difficult area."

Harrington has listed 32 South Battery, which also sits among a stretch of historic homes near the waterfront, for $10.3 million. Since the property went on the market last fall, she has shown it to a handful of local families, would-be buyers from the Northeast and some foreign prospects, including an English couple.

Another notable recent listing in this elite property class is the residence at 60 Montagu, which went on the market last week for $13 million.

Sales agent Lois Lane declined to say why former California developer Steve Stewart wants to sell the home, which he bought for his family in 2004 for $3.5 million. But she noted that the Stewarts completed an exhaustive renovation on the property.

"The city has been so well-preserved that I think it would be different if you had a very historic property in the middle of downtown Atlanta, because in Charleston you have an entire city and community that is preserved," Lane said.