A South Carolina riverfront home speaks the local vernacular.
South Carolina's Low Country is famous for Spanish moss, hospitali-Sty, and she-crab soup. But as much as for anything else, it is known for historic plantation homes. The colonnaded Big House is an icon that—judging from the looks of new homes built in the region—retains a powerful hold on the imagination of local homeowners. But not everyone here shares the antebellum fantasy of columns and pediments, and fortunately for these folks, there is another side to the Low Country's architectural heritage. In addition to the “high” styles of plantation homes and Charleston mansions, the region boasts a rich mix of vernacular buildings: fishing camps, agricultural buildings, and simple tin-roofed houses. Because these buildings evolved in response to this waterway-laced environment and the skills and materials at hand, their forms are as evocative of the Low Country as any plantation home. And in the right hands, elements inspired by these humbler structures can rise far above their utilitarian origins. This home, near the port city of Beaufort, S.C., is a prime example. Located on 25 acres of tidal riverfront, it follows the vernacular path to arrive at a kind of Low-Country-low-style state of grace.
The site is in an island development designed to minimize human impact on the environment, a goal the owners took to heart in planning their own house. “They wanted it to look like an old place that had been on the river,” says project architect Joel Newman, “more of a fish camp than an old plantation house.” Working from a design by principal architect Jim Thomas, Newman supervised the construction of what he calls “a compound of buildings that kind of lace their way through the woods.” The residence consists of a main house, a guest cottage, and an elevated artist's studio with sheltered parking below. Approached via a dirt drive that winds through thick stands of pine and live oak, the buildings are connected by a trellised colonnade that encloses an informal courtyard dotted with mature trees. Plantation houses, like their subdivision descendants, were designed and sited to impress. This compound is so intertwined with the landscape that, even though it occupies a substantial piece of real estate, it is anything but imposing. With its weathered cedar siding and green trim mimicking the colors of tree trunk and foliage, it all but hides from view. But while this architecture doesn't shout, it does have plenty to say—about the site, about Low Country building traditions, and about its owners.
“You can always tell the elevation of a house by the number of crabs scuttling around,” says Newman, as his footsteps on the path from the main house to the studio send a dozen of the tiny creatures fleeing. “Here we're basically at marsh level.” The buildings are elevated to avoid any encroachment of the river on the low-lying site, but a skirting of decks, wide stairs, and plantings disguises that fact. To enter the main house or guest cottage, one first climbs a wide set of stairs to a broad wood deck that separates the courtyard from the salt marsh and river. “The biggest concept was [to have] the inside and outside connected, so you can't tell where one ends and the other begins,” Newman explains. The progression from outdoors to indoors starts here, under the shelter of palms and live oaks that sprout through the deck. Their trunks echo in the painted pine-log columns that support the trellis. The same pine logs serve also as porch posts and march right into the main house as interior columns.
The main house's first floor consists of an L, the long leg of which contains a great room, the short leg a bedroom and bath. An interior gallery outlines the L on the courtyard side; covered porches line the sides facing the river. A master suite occupies the entire second floor, from which a circular stair rises to a tower-like study with a private terrace and rooftop outdoor shower. The guest cottage, a scaled-down approximate mirror image of the main house, contains twin bedrooms with baths, a comfortable and efficient great room, and a private screened porch. Across the courtyard, the carport/studio building sandwiches a parking pad between two ground-level enclosures; one holds the stair to the studio above, the other a storage closet and a climate-controlled wine cellar. The art studio is appropriately open and bright, and it is sufficiently removed from the living areas that work may proceed without interruption.
The compound's primary materials are traditional—cedar board-and-batten siding, metal roofing, walls of a local concrete recipe called “tabby”—or actually old, like roof timbers salvaged from the pilings of an old pier. “It's a pretty simple palette of stuff,” Newman says, and one that reflects the owners' taste for materials in their natural state—or even rougher. In old tabby buildings, the walls were finished in a smooth coat of lime plaster. Here, the tabby walls are finish-plastered only in isolated patches, “like the tabby ruins that you see around here.” The wife, an avid naturalist, augmented the oyster shells that are a typical ingredient of tabby by pressing the bones of wild animals—small limbs, vertebrae, pelvic bones, skulls—here and there into the still-wet surfaces.
“Deer, raccoon, turtle, otter...” Builder Mike Reynolds ticks off the native species whose skeletal artifacts stud the walls of the house that he and project manager Kraig Minckler built. “The owner went around with Kraig with shells and bones, and pottery shards,” he says. “There are some paws sticking out of the wall here.” The owner is also an accomplished artist, and her acute visual sense is much in evidence. “She likes to see the raw material,” Minckler says, “to see age and depth and scratches that are there for a reason.” Combined with the compound's intertwined relationship with its site, this embrace of materials in their essential state confers a credibility that is rare in new buildings. The instant authenticity is not diminished by the loose, contemporary flow of the floor plans, the occasional Modernist detail, or the precision technology of an 18-foot-wide disappearing glass sliding door.
This aspiration toward timelessness reaches its point at the heart of the main house. Here, a wood-and-steel spiral stair winds upward, its great size, graceful organic shape, and intentionally fabrication-scarred surfaces asserting a powerful sculptural presence (see “Upward Mobility,” opposite page). Bracketing the massive steel coil are four fluted columns salvaged from the now-demolished porch of a 19th-century Charleston law office. Stripped of paint, the hand-carved surfaces reveal the columns' origins in the solid trunks of ancient pines, bear the marks of long-dead craftsmen, irresistibly draw one to touch. Like the compound's other historically resonant forms and eloquently distressed surfaces, the columns announce the lineage of this house, which stands in the present but reaches back through other buildings to other times, back to the starting place of all the stuff of buildings, back to the earth.