The small white blobs lining Juliana Falk's second floor ceiling looked as much like marshmallows as anything, but about three years ago, her contractor David Hoffman explained to her that underneath all that paint, there was something else.
The rest is history, more specifically history being revealed.
That fateful conversation gave Falk a new insight into her home's storied past, launching an ongoing labor that is part restoration, part research project. Falk and Hoffman both joke their work has gone beyond a hobby to a passion, or even an obsession.
Falk also began a blog on Facebook and Instagram, dubbed "The Accidental Preservationist," and has more than 1,000 people following her ongoing work at the house.
Hoffman knew that underneath two centuries of accumulated paint layers were detailed acanthus leaves, and he scraped off the paint to reveal one or two. Hoffman told her if she didn't like what she saw, he could just goop paint back on top.
"I truly had no idea. I just thought it was going to look like little three-lobed blobs. That got me thinking about the house in a totally different way,” she says. "There was going to be no gooping of paint and pretending I never saw it."
Today, the second floor parlor has been stripped down to the original materials dating to its construction in 1810, when merchant and French Simon Chancognie (prounounced SHANK-a-nay) had it constructed on Laurens Street, likely with a good view of Charleston Harbor. Only a few leaves remain in a marshmallow-like form.
Falk never expected to have her new Charleston home become a research project. When she bought it in 2010, she was simply looking for an historic downtown home, meaning an old one.
After talking with Hoffman, she realized her home was more than just old: It still had an unusual amount of its original fabric intact.
"This house always walked a fine line between people having enough money to maintain it, but not having enough money to improve it," Hoffman says. "I told her you need to A) realize the purity of the house and to B) move cautiously. It's a museum piece."
Hoffman says the 48 Laurens St. house has a few curiosities that he's grown fond of, particularly its east-facing piazza. Most single homes have their piazzas facing south or west, possibly to help shield the main house from the force of the summer sun.
Like other Charleston homes, the ornament varied from room to room, in a sort of heirarchy. The second floor parlor that's been stripped was the most ornate. "You can always tell where he wanted to bring his most important friends," Hoffman says. "This room was his showpiece. This is where he would have brought you to impress you."
One dominant feature in the room is a unique mantel made of King of Prussia stone, named for the area near Philadelphia where it was quarried. Although Chancognie came to Charleston from Philadelphia, it's unclear how the mantel, unusual for Charleston homes of this period, arrived here.
Meanwhile, they also discovered a fragment of wallpaper, one that they later matched to a surviving sample that former Charleston Museum director Milby Burton salvaged from the house in the 1930s. Falk hopes to get it reproduced.
Falk also researched the "Aetna furnace" furnace name stamped on the decorative cast iron fireplace in a bedroom. She traced it to the William Hill Furnace Co., an Upstate manufacturer that first made the "Aera" design, then the Aetna model.
"It's the only known surviving piece of cast iron from Aetna," she says. "This was probably one of the last pieces they produced. A literal firesale."
Falk's interest in the house also has led her to her yard, where she worked with Martha Zierden of the Charleston Museum on archaeological digs in her yard. The property previously contained what's believed to be one of the city's first bathhouses.
"It's indeed an intriguing site," Zierden says. "Juliana was right there in the middle of the dig, working with us every day. She learned quickly to identify the artifacts, and wanted to follow the 48 Laurens materials into the lab. So she did, participating in every step of analysis and identification. She found that she really enjoyed archaeology lab work, as much as excavation, and is now a regular volunteer."
When April Wood, manager of easements and technical outreach for the Historic Charleston Foundation, put Falk and Hoffman in touch with one another, she never expected their collaboration would bear so much fruit.
“She’s doing basically museum quality work on her house,” Wood says. “She’s thinking about it differently than just her home. It’s really more of an in-depth research project for her. It’s really exciting. We get to do that with the Russell House (museum at 51 Meeting St.), but it’s not something we see people doing with their own house over so many years.”
Wood says Falk's story underscores the value in keeping many layers of an old house because it's always possible to learn more from them. "There are a lot of mysteries," she says. "Even with our two house museums, we’ll never know everything. There’s always more research.”
Will it ever be done?
One of the reasons why Falk and Hoffman have been able to learn so much is that they're in no rush to finish.
"I'm under no time frame," she says. "I like to try to do things myself."
She says she plans to restore the second floor parlor to how it originally looked in 1810, but she still has a little more research to do on some of the finishes, particularly the wallpaper. But she has become so fond of its stripped down grandeur that she may leave her first floor parlor in such a state once she finishes stripping off its later accretions.
Falk has made the house available to dozens of students, including both graduate and undergraduate interns interested in getting hands-on experience in restoring historical details. She also does some work herself, with Hoffman's guidance.
"I do enjoy it," she says, adding that she stripped one of her room's floors with her father. "I am hoping in the new year to get the scaffolding back up and get out the heat gun and go back at it."
The house's exterior is due for repainting soon, so that will trigger a decision of how much more stripping to do on the ornate piazza arches, but Hoffman says that work isn't urgent.
"We could easily repaint that piazza and add another layer to the 30 that are already there," he says.
Falk hopes to travel to Dordogne, France, next year to do research in the town where Chancognie was born in the same year as a far more famous Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte. In the best of all possible worlds, she hopes to find a journal that he kept during his time in Charleston, if such a thing exists.
"I'll never be at a lost for research projects for the next 40 years," Falk says. "I'm always planning things to keep myself occupied."
"It's nice to get a client who is very sympathetic and can take time to do the research," Hoffman adds. "Some of that research creates more mystery instead of less."
Meanwhile, one other change may be made soon to the exterior. While researching the wallpaper, they found old newspapers dating from 1809 and 1810, which, along with other evidence, argue strongly that the house's date of construction is closer to circa 1810.
An exterior plaque gives that date as 1816, but that soon will change.
"We're going to take off the '1816.' We will file that off, and David has '1810' cast,” Falk says, "With Historic Charleston Foundation's blessing, we will update their plaque."