Glass house nears 25th birthday

A few changes inside the Croffead home include the wall color (now cream instead of white) and the faux wood finish on the partition (left) separating the kitchen from the living area.

It was one of Charleston’s most honored homes in the late 20th century, a modernist, three-story residence nestled in the oaks where the Wappoo Cut empties into the Stono River.

A quarter century later, the James Island residence at 85 Riverland Drive, also known as the Croffead House, has weathered well, with relatively few changes inside or out.

And while it hasn’t inspired a lot of similar designs, the home remains a Lowcountry icon.

Architects W.G. Clark and Charles Menefee designed the home 25 years ago for Dr. Thomas G. and Pati Croffead, who had been inspired by the then-brand new Inn at Middleton Place.

Admittedly, part of the home’s success is simply its outstanding site: a bluff offering more than 180 degrees of waterfront vistas, ranging from the tight confines of the Wappoo Cut to the faraway marsh expanse where the Stono River passes by Johns Island.

The architects noted that when they began work, the Croffeads’ instructions to them were simple: They only wanted “a house without a lot of rooms lying around waiting to be used,” a painting studio, and a desire “to live in the trees.”

It’s the latter part that works so well.

While the house looks intriguing from the outside, one must ascend its stairs and enter the two-story tall second-floor living area to get the full effect.

Those lucky enough to do so are greeted with an approximately 16-foot by 9-foot bay window that offers a southerly view of the Stono.

That might seem like a bad idea, since such a window also would let the hot sun pour inside. But the window is partly shaded by several live oak branches, which don’t block the view as much as they add something else to gaze at.

Pattie Croffead, who married Thomas Croffead after his first wife died, has lived in the house for 12 years and calls this window “the show.”

“The tree is a showcase every day, especially in the morning, with the squirrels and the birds,” she says.

While the window attracts the eye, the second floor is one open space that includes the living area, dining space, kitchen and stair — all surrounded by a mix of large windows and glass block.

The block facing the neighboring home, where the Croffeads first resided before they built next door, is textured to provide privacy.

Not even Hurricane Hugo’s wrath could harm it. The storm fortunately took few trees on the property, and in 1992, the house won a national honor award from the American Institute of Architects, just as the Inn at Middleton Place had five years earlier.

The house photographed well then, and it photographs well today.

Those walking up will see its dominant features are a free-standing stair and then a masonry chimney extending up through the roof, as if it were a live oak that the builders worked around.

That’s far from the only nod to nature. The house itself is set back from the bend where the Wappoo and Stono meet, giving those walking on the grounds a better view of the water. And the color of the concrete and concrete block blends well with the oak bark.

Pattie Croffead says the only changes during the past 24 years have been minimal ones.

They include: replacing some insulated windows when their seals broke; repainting the metal trim; changing the wall color from white to cream; adding bookshelves on the first floor; adding a dock out back; and giving a faux wooden finish to the cabinets separating the kitchen from the rest of the second-floor living space.

The Croffeads are preparing to put the house up for sale because they’re ready to live in a place with fewer stairs.

The asking price is expected to be $2.9 million, certainly a lot for a two-bedroom, two-bath home.

But it’s rare to get such a unique home on such a unique site, one that architecture students want to visit.

The Croffeads have thought about expanding or adding an elevator, but altering such an honored work of architecture can be a dicey proposition.

“I’m almost the purist now,” she says. “I don’t want to see anything changed.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.