Even after decades of prosperity, the Charleston peninsula still has its fair share of vacant historic houses that have suffered from the ravages of time and the elements.
They sag, lean, partially rot and may even show signs of burns, but their value remains thanks to the legacy of preservation and, in many cases, the strict oversight of the Charleston Board of Architectural Review.
Yet the peninsula demonstrates that saving the houses and the integrity of the neighborhoods is more than possible. And often, costly restorations pay off.
Four such extreme makeovers drew audible gasps when the “before” and “after” photos were shown on a large screen during the Preservation Society of Charleston’s 64th annual Carolopolis Awards in January.
Society Executive Director Kristopher King heralded the teams of owners, architects and contractors that often exceed requirements to save the historic and cultural integrity of Charleston and were among the 14 award winners this year.
“The preservation movement began here and these projects illustrate why Charleston remains a national leader in preservation,” says King. “Simply put, authenticity matters here and these homeowners have gone above and beyond to preserves pieces of it.”
29 Kennedy St. – West Side
Perhaps the most remarkable transformation in the latest class of award winners was 29 Kennedy St., owned by Steven Grossman.
Even though the house was constructed in 1935, not as old as most structures considered for the awards, King says the gabled single house had been converted into multiple units, undergone several “inappropriate additions and alterations,” including having the side porch, or “piazza,” filled in.
Over time, the house fell into state of dilapidation, with extensive wood rot and termite damage, and was covered in vegetation.
Grossman, a New York City transplant to Charleston, had a background in renovation and was looking for a house to fix up and move into it.
“I was looking around town and consistently scouring the MLS listings that were affordable,” he recalls. Grossman found 29 Kennedy after nearly a year of looking. “Even though it looked awful, the structure wasn’t in too bad a shape. It was mostly dry … Armed with all the information, I thought it was a good risk to take.”
One challenge he didn’t anticipate was opposition to the renovation project from the neighborhood.
“The residents came out against me, opposed me at the neighborhood association meeting and sent letters to the BZA (Board of Zoning Appeals) and BAR opposing the projects, without even seeing the plans. It was a knee-jerk reaction from people who didn’t want one more car on the street. They’ve since come around and said what a great project,” Grossman says.
Grossman heralded the work of building designer Andrew Gould of New World Byzantine.
When the work was approved, Grossman’s contractor built a new foundation, stabilized and shored up the house frame, completely replaced the first floor system, added structural support to the second story floor system, and replaced windows with compatible new ones.
King adds, “The historic character of this house was greatly enhanced by restoring the piazza and the original window configuration.”
Grossman said the renovation took about 11 months to complete and had many challenges.
“You deal with problems as they arise. I would best describe it from a line from the movie ‘Moneyball’ when Brad Pitt says, ‘This is a process. It’s a process. It’s a process, OK.’”
50 South St. – East Side
Close to 29 Kennedy on the audible gasp meter was the renovation of 50 South St., which was originally built in the 1880s.
Somewhat like Grossman, owner William Easterlin had some background in building and spent 15 years working in Washington, D.C., for general contractors, real estate developers and the government.
“I was purposefully on the hunt for a renovation of a certain magnitude in Charleston,” says Easterlin, who says some real estate contacts drew his attention to an East Side house that “isn’t on the greatest-looking street in downtown Charleston.”
What followed was a little serendipity when he chatted with Rick Rockwell of Rockwell Construction in front of a restoration he was working on at Duke’s Court. The two meshed and have four more projects in the works.
As for the house, Easterlin described it as originally “overbuilt for such a little bitty house,” perhaps by an African-American carpenter who was familiar with techniques in building mansions and was building the house for himself.
“Because it was overbuilt, the roof was in fantastic shape and the house was bone dry on the inside. So it never leaked. Now, you know, everything in Charleston has settled or shifted or shook sideways and this house was no different,” says Easterlin, adding that there was a 6- to 8-inch drop from the corners of the house to the middle of the house.
Easterlin says the work included rebuilding the frame, leveling the floor joist and floor and replacing burned portions of the side porch.
At the Carolopolis Awards, King described the project as “a significant effort for a modest vernacular structure.”
Though Easterlin was listed as the owner on the Carolopolis Award, he sold the house before the restoration was complete.
129 Queen St. – Harleston Village
The 1830s-era house at 129 Queen had won a Carolopolis Award in 1977, but had suffered since 2010 when a fire burned through a significant portion of the piazza, central staircase and roof.
Smoke and water damage was extensive and the house had remained unoccupied until it was purchased and renovated by former Chicago residents Craig and Kate Coit.
“The building was in ridiculously bad shape,” recalls Craig Coit.
Both the Coits and the Preservation Society’s King noted that repairs of the fire did not completely erase the scars it left on first floor and staircase.
Leaving some burn marks on the lower stairs as a testament to the house’s history is consistent with previous owners who never repaired a roof beam damaged by a cannon ball during the bombardment of Charleston during the Civil War.
Of an array of repairs, Coit says a lot of effort went into restoring the piazza, which he described as “hanging on a thread.” They also had to convince the BAR to let them re-open the second-story piazza, which had been enclosed.
The Coits says Paul Koenig of Crest Contractors was particularly resourceful when restoring existing columns and finding new ones to match the historic ones.
“He’s a true craftsman,” Coit says.
81 Line St. - Cannonborough / Elliottborough
Trey Sedalik was drawn to a long-vacant, single house, built in 1884, on 81 Line because of the neighborhood and its proximity to King Street.
“But the house was in very poor shape. It was leaning on the adjacent property and the floors in some places were completely blown through,” Sedalik says.
“It had been a very long time since someone had lived in it. There was some evidence (of people) who broke in over the years and, you know, stayed and did whatever they do.”
Sometime between 1958 and 1961, the owner converted the house into a duplex by enclosing the piazza with concrete blocks. King called it “inappropriate.”
The project team, which included Andrew Gould of New World Byzantine and contractor Flyway, restored the piazza to the original dimensions shown on historically accurate Sandborn Fire Insurance maps.
Other work included stabilizing the first floor, restoring windows, replacing missing shutters, rotted siding and the roof with a new metal one.