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Building designer saves ramshackle 'gateway' cottage in downtown Charleston

A previous version of this story contained an error. Julie O'Connor is not an architect.

For years, Julie and Stephen O’Connor conducted the business of their design firm, American Vernacular, out of a tiny building behind their house in Mount Pleasant’s I’On neighborhood.

“We started thinking we ought to get a big girl office,” recalls Julie O’Connor, of an effort that started more than two years ago. “We started looking for a place, anywhere, but particularly downtown.”

Eventually a friend who is a real estate agent suggested, though in a discouraging way, that they look at a long-abandoned house that sits on a sliver of land between the Crosstown and the playground in front of Mitchell Elementary School.

Originally, the property address was 11 Park St. North, then 11 Todd St., and more recently 151 Sheppard St. When the Crosstown, or the Septima Clark Expressway was built, the house was cut off and somewhat isolated, from a residential standpoint.

But it's the first building motorists see after turning off the southbound-Crosstown for Rutledge Avenue.

O'Connor recalls inspecting the property for the first time as it if were yesterday.

“We came over and it’s completely boarded up. There was barely a roof on it. We get flashlights because it’s pitch black inside,” recalls O’Connor, who described it as "sad" and "a disaster." 

In fact, part of the house had burned in a fire years before.

But her reaction to it was contrary to most. “I looked around and said, 'This is it. I fell in love with it immediately.”

They bought the 800-square-foot-building for $140,000, but would end up spending $350,000 to renovate it in a historically sensitive way, while also opening up the interior to make it airy, bright and modern. Spray foam insulation keeps the interior surprisingly quiet from constant daytime car traffic on the busy Crosstown and Rutledge Avenue.

Using evidence from the only remaining window sash, the O’Connors installed “nine-over-nine” paned windows on the building and reused thick heart pine wood boards, originally used to sheath the house, for its floors.

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“We had evidence of things of what was here. We did what we could to keep what was here and redo what wasn’t,” says O’Connor, adding that the renovation makes it conducive to converting the building back to a house.

For their efforts, the Preservation Society of Charleston presented O’Connor with a Carolopolis Award, one of only 12 for 2016, in February.

The society’s Preservation Director Robert Gurley says the restoration project was a fine example of “adaptive reuse,” noting that O’Connor sought and received a federal variance for the house, built around 1900, to avoid having to elevate it.

“This house could’ve easily been lost,” says Gurley. “The commitment to take this building and bring it back, we thought, was tremendous.”

Executive Director Kristopher King says that part of the importance of the structure is that it is at a “gateway” to the city, because Rutledge Avenue is a significant entry point to the Charleston peninsula.

“This Charleston single cottage is a great example of dying breed of houses from this era,” said King, during the ceremony in February, adding that much of the “historic fabric was either salvaged or matched.”

The challenge of restoring the structure was made even greater three months after the O’Connors purchased it.

In early June 2015, O’Connor recalls arriving to the property to find that “the city (of Charleston) plunked a $2 million crane (for its drainage project) on our property without asking. “

“We had to go into big negotiations with the city for squatting on our property without asking us, then they ended up taking it by eminent domain,” recalls O’Connor.

Now with the cranes gone, the restoration complete and the O’Connors moved in, Julie O’Connor beams about the new office, noting that “people knock on the door all the time” to come see it.

“It’s been very gratifying especially because this is my business,” says O’Connor, noting that her master's degree is in historic preservation. “ This is what I love. It’s just incredible to take something that I fell in love and turn it into something I use every day.”

Contact David Quick at 843-937-5516. Follow him on Twitter @DavidQuick.

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