A new home opened last year in historic downtown Charleston, but it's not like any other on Wentworth Street.
Charleston's own Fisher House, a 16-bedroom property that caters to sick veterans, military service members and their families, opened in January 2018 at 150 Wentworth. There are 84 such houses around the country, operated by the Fisher House Foundation.
But Charleston's red brick, three-story structure is unique because it's not located on a military installation or Veterans Affairs property. That made for a challenging design process, said architect Carl Zarrello. For the first time, Zarrello had to consult with Charleston's local design board because the home is located in the city's historic district.
At a Fisher House, guests stay free of charge as a veteran or service member receives care at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. The house was spearheaded by local philanthropists Trux and Durbin Emerson, who led the effort to find a property, since there wasn't enough room at the VA site.
Charleston's house manager, Vicki Johnson, said the property has served more than 1,300 families since it's been open. Patients and families from Myrtle Beach to Hinesville, Ga., come to Charleston to visit the VA hospital. Patients can sometimes come from even farther because Charleston is a regional center for cardiac and cancer specialties, said Tonya Lobbestael, a spokeswoman for the Charleston VA.
The average length of stay is about four days, Johnson said. But others can stay months, as they're receiving a long-term treatment, like chemotherapy.
"It makes a lot more sense for them to ... be a lot more rested, versus having to drive two hours each way," Lobbestael said.
Interior designer Beverly Miears said that her mission, when outfitting the inside of a Fisher House, was to make it feel as if guests are staying at the comfortably appointed home of a friend.
She has also focused on the local character when designing, and decorations highlighting botanicals in the main living room are meant to pay tribute to the gardens and natural landscape of the Lowcountry. Miears said the work is particularly fulfilling.
"When you do an individual’s home, you always do your best, but in this case, you know that you’re working for the greater good," she said.
On the outside, a Fisher House in one location usually looks like any other: wings on either side with ground-floor bedrooms, and only two stories.
But the Charleston property is slimmer and taller. The building had to be situated in a particular way because of a historic carriage house and brick wall on the property, said Zarello, the architect.
Because the property is now federal land, Zarrello went through only a courtesy consultation with Charleston's notoriously strict Board of Architectural Review. The panel, which weighs in on details like paint color and building materials, can usually dictate in fine detail what a project in the historic district will look like.
"They weren’t very courteous. I was surprised, actually," Zarello said. "I've had difficult clients in the past, so it wasn't totally unfamiliar territory."
Meanwhile, Kristopher King, of the Preservation Society of Charleston, said he isn't thrilled with the final design. The BAR and others wanted the house to fit the historical context of the area better, he said.
"We had concerns with the materials, concerns with the design. We really tried to promote a design that was more contextual to Charleston, more forgiving to the neighborhood," King said. "While what's happening inside the building is so positive, I think the exterior kind of lets down that mission."
Zarrello also said he feels that the end product looks a little "intimidating" compared to other Fisher Houses. Charleston preservationists pushed back hard against the typical design.
But he said that he was happy about the outdoor areas at the Charleston house, including a garden and back patio.
"I think most people that have seen the building like it," he said.