The pink mansion at 5 East Battery is one of Charleston's most visible homes, with its unusually large garden, expansive harbor view and location only two doors up from White Point Garden.
Many might believe the house has changed little since it was built in the mid-19th century. After all, it's seen few alterations recently, at least since it gained its signature pink color after its former owners took possession of it around 1959.
In reality, the house has seen many changes over time, even as its most signature interior spaces have remained largely intact, and it is continuing to change.
Its new owner, financier Scott Bessent, has hired architect Glenn Keyes and contractor Richard "Moby" Marks to restore it, repair past water damage and protect it from future floods, and convert it from a bed-and-breakfast to a single-family home. Their work has been underway for more than two years and is expected to take another year to finish everything up.
Their project involves more than securing the house for future generations: It also involves new research into its extensive history, work that sheds new light into the myriad changes and residents who lived here.
Bessent had sold his house on Church Street 10 years ago, and when the price dropped on 5 East Battery, his close friends and neighbors, including Charles Duell and the late Richard Jenrette, as well as several family members, encouraged him to make an offer.
Bessent lives in New York but plans to retire here in 15-20 years. His family has deep roots here, and he savors its historic core: "The glory of Charleston ... is the mosaic of time and the varying conditions of the houses on the peninsula.
"It was time for 5 East Battery to be restored to its past glory.”
A complex, rich past
The effort to restore the home began with a new search into its past. This part of the city originally was intended as a northward extension of White Point Garden, but the financial panic of 1837 prompted the city to sell the land instead, with leaders envisioning a beautiful row of ornamental buildings along the whole line of East Battery.
Marks says research shows that John Ravenel, a prosperous Huguenot, was busy with this part of the city as it developed in the 1830s, fueled by the construction of the High Battery seawall.
The original house, according to an 1850 depiction of the city, showed it without the piazza that later would be added as a defining feature, Marks says. It also didn't have its bay window in front, and its rear wing was far smaller.
Also, the house originally was brick, laid in a Flemish bond, much like the Roper House, its northern neighbor. Both also had brownstone trim.
Shortly after it was built, the brick and stucco mansion faced shelling from a prolonged Union bombardment of Charleston during the Civil War, but it was the earthquake two decades later — the strongest quake ever recorded on the East Coast — that did the most damage.
"The building changed most dramatically after the earthquake," Marks says. Its bay window in front came down, as did some of its upper parapets and part of its northern wall. Later repairs changed its original cornice, with stone and cast finials, into one made from pressed tin. The arched openings around its rusticated base were changed to straight lentils.
The post-earthquake changes came after its ownership by St. Julien Ravenel, a planter, surgeon and scientist who designed the early submarine prototype Little David and who later would help start the region's late 19th-century phosphate industry.
Ravenel also apparently added the carriage house at the rear of the property, which Marks believes might have been more of a laboratory than a conventional carriage house or servants quarters.
"It doesn’t really fit the model of any kind of servants quarters we're used to," he says. "We found all this gas piping, but there were no fireplaces. We think it's a lab and the piping may have been used like Bunsen burners. I can't explain it any other way. They're too low for sconces."
The greater challenge
While bombardment and an earthquake plagued the house's early years, the past century has brought a less dramatic but equally destructive force: water.
Not only has the mansion had to survive storms whose waters topped the High Battery, but the home's crawl space is essentially the same level as the harbor, "which is not a good thing," Keyes says.
While not readily visible, the building's foundation was slowly being undermined by drains that flushed harbor water in and out with the tides. Its crawl space had filled with pluff mud.
As a result, its first floor joists had rotted on the ends. The brick walls essentially acted as wicks, drawing water up from the ground into the building: The moisture, in turn, eroded away much of the mortar on the first floor walls and even caused problems on upper floors.
All those walls are being repointed. Fortunately, some are 32 inches thick, so they didn't fail from the steady mortar loss.
"We don't usually take down whole rooms of plaster, but there was no choice," Keyes says. "We also had a lot of termite damage. A lot of wood had to be replaced."
Meanwhile, the current work will rebuild the wall that previously existed in front of the home, essentially by continuing the existing wall between the sidewalk and the home's side yard. It's not just an aesthetic move: The wall will help keep future floodwaters from entering the property.
The new wall will be built so its driveway and pedestrian gates can be boarded up whenever a tropical storm threatens.
"The greater challenge has been designing equipment and barriers to protect the house against the more frequent water events that are a new phenomenon for the Battery and the entire city," Bessent says. "Through a combination of imagination, coupled with existing systems from Holland, I think we have fortified the property against all but a Hurricane Hugo situation.”
"You can't really design for Hugo," Keyes adds.
Choosing the color
Fortunately, the conversion back to a single-family home was less challenging.
"The crown jewels of the house are the three principal rooms on the second floor that have remained intact from John Ravenel’s original floor plan, complete with moldings and mantels," Bessent says.
One small change is a new elevator shaft rebuilt farther back into the home's southwest corner, a change that exposed more of the piazza.
As Marks' crews removed a piece of trim, it discovered the signature of Albert Elfe of Charleston, grandson of the city's famous furniture craftsman Thomas Elfe.
"It's interesting and great that we found this name. We've only found names on four houses we've worked on," Marks says. "We're hoping that maybe Albert Elfe was the builder for the Ravenels," though the house also has similarities to 21 Legare St., a house designed by prolific Charleston architect E.B. White.
Of course, many familiar with the house likely want to know if it will keep its pinkish color, which is not original (the house originally was brick, and its first stucco coat was a tan-brownish hue).
"We had to take all finish coats off," Keyes says. "Limewash can't go over paint. It can only go over masonry."
While the research found paint samples dating all the way back to the house's original darker color, Bessent decided that the pink had become iconic and should stay.
Its new appearance won't include pink paint but a pink limewash, similar to that recently applied to the French Huguenot Church.