When 4 South Adgers Wharf was built around 1800, it helped fuel commerce in Charleston’s harbor. Slaves, freedmen and Irish immigrants all loaded cotton and rice through the brick warehouse’s big, arched openings that looked out onto the water.
The warehouse later became a residential house, and a renovation in the mid 1950s reflected the taste of the time, far from the open-air feeling of the original warehouse. It hadn’t been updated since then when Lee Tawes stood in the gardens a few years ago after a broiling hot day of house-hunting. No matter. He fell in love with the proximity to Waterfront Park and the Cooper River and welcomed a cooling breeze. This was going to be his next home.
“Honey, what would you think about one more big renovation project?”
His wife, interior designer Marsha Russell, owner of Satinwood, Ltd., needed a bit more convincing.
The house did have a wonderful location and off-street parking, but it was dark, the windows small. Russell knew the house would have to be opened up again, a daunting project. There was no sign of the large openings that had loaded in cotton and rice back hundreds of years ago.
They purchased the house in 2014. Russell started drawing and engaged local architect Glenn Keyes to help fulfill her mission.
After the 18-month-long restoration, the large arched openings have been restored and covered with custom arched glass windows cleverly designed with interior panes that open wide enough to satisfy the fire marshal who inspected the house after its redesign. The house faces a popular dog park across a cobblestone street and, beyond, sailboats dot the horizon catching that breeze that captured Tawes the first time he saw the house.
The house is a favorite of the Preservation Society of Charleston, and this fall marks the third year it has been on the society’s House and Garden Tours.
“I love that house,” says Susan McLeod Epstein, tours manager for the Preservation Society. “I personally think they did a great job. I think the history is incredible. You can envision the wharf extending out and ships coming in and out. It was a bare-bones building and then the transformation it went through, the fact that they took it back with those great big industrial size windows! The view is spectacular, her colors are great, and I think the garden is beautiful. it’s modern-day Charleston but shows respect to our past.”
The largest change besides the windows is the change in the interior, which feels open and airy.
The ceilings have been removed to expose beams and walls have been removed to open the house to light and water views. The entryway has been enlarged as has the curving stairway. An Italian sideboard from the 1950s adds a spare, modern touch that signals that this house isn’t just a faithful copy of the building’s origins.
In the dining room, the large window has a water view, and a Scottish sideboard from the 1700s shares the room with a Warhol print and a colorful blue-green triptych of maidenhead ferns that brings the water’s color indoors.
“You can feel like you’re on a stage sometimes,” Tawes says, gesturing to the huge window that could be a proscenium to the dining room table, “but fortunately this street is fairly private.”
More modern, angular furniture and mid-century furniture fills the living room, where Rose, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, accompanies Tawes as though she's the real tour guide. Although the room is flooded with sunlight, a new gas fireplace adds coziness when the weather is gray. White walls serve as a bright canvas to colorful artwork, including a beaded piece from South Africa.
“We wanted the living room to flow to the garden and we opened the ceiling up and painted it white as well as bringing back the original big arched windows,” Tawes says.
The living room leads to the kitchen at the back of the house, filled with modern appliances, including a glass-fronted refrigerator, and a red-knobbed slate-colored stove. On one end of the long kitchen, a large cushioned window seat invites lingering. A glass door built into an arched window creates a mushroom-shaped glass view, and leads out onto the brick courtyard, where Tawes first fell in love with the house.
A brick trellis in one of the courtyard arches has been lowered two feet to take advantage of the view and the breeze, and wisteria traces the arches. On the patio’s rear wall, a large antique clock’s Roman numerals are fixed at 5 p.m. “They say it’s always 5 p.m. somewhere and this is the place,” Tawes jokes.
This is a house with a sense of humor; if the large kitchen table with the slightly askew angles didn’t convey that, the powder room would. Open the door next to the kitchen and you will see that Marsha Russell’s plans to change the house have been turned into wallpaper for the room, reminding visitors that this house came together because of the way she turned her husband’s intuition into her vision.