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January 2008

The Charleston Home:
Martial Art
Written By: 
Emily Perlman Abedon
Photographs By: 
Brie Williams

A former military supplies building found new life when the Graves family took command

Step into the home of Tina and Rob­ert Graves and you’ve entered a place where historic architecture meets industrial style like no place else on Earth. Long before it became an idyllic, barrier-island refuge for the couple and their daughter, Sydney, the circa-1898 property, close to Fort Moultrie on ­Sullivan’s Island, held an ordnance storage building and machine shop, which made weapons parts and housed ammunition for battles dating back to the Spanish-American War. “We drove by, saw the for sale sign and all this cool, funky junk in the yard,” says Robert, a residential builder who specializes in historic renovations. “It was a place full of stories, just begging for a rehab.”

When the Graves bought it in 2003, the structure had been turned into a duplex, with a one-bedroom apartment in the back. Though they couldn’t have known on their first visit to the building’s cramped interior the extent of surprises a renovation would reveal, a tiny door that opened to the attic gave a hint of its lovely bones. “We saw this truss system,” explains Robert, his eyes surveying the 25-foot-tall ceiling as he points out the meticulously preserved geometric assembly of beams that now crowns their home’s main living area. “It’s beautiful old wood, but it also exposes just how well this place was put together. It was built to hold heavy artillery, and my contractor buddies’ eyes get all big when we talk about the military techno­logy that went into this structure.”

Tina admits she finds it comforting to think of all the storms the building has withstood. She also feels proud to have rescued it from an equally tough enemy of antique properties: neglect. “I like new houses,” she offers, “but there’s something about an old one that is romantic and earthy. It feels good to be a steward for the past.”

The Graves’ stewardship took a distinctly creative bent on this endeavor, as the couple hired artist-designer David Boatwright to help them achieve a perfect floor plan, while allowing the home’s aesthetic to be born from the process of taking the place apart. Boatwright’s reputation as an “outside-the-box” thinker proved a good match for the Graves’ house, which, once gutted, was in fact an empty box of sorts. “It was like a skating rink once the interior walls were torn out,” says Tina, who recalls daughter Sydney, then five, riding her scooter around the place as they considered where to place hallways, staircases, and walls.

By building three dormers on the front of the house and creating a roomy kitchen addition accessed through a cozy breakfast nook, the Graves increased the structure’s area and light without sacrificing its cottage-style quaintness. But one element above all others gives this house its unique character: a 38-foot-tall white tower, which is positioned to foster maximum reflection in the water of the adjacent pool. It offers a statuesque form in a spot intended to gather friends and enjoy the view, unabashedly paying homage to the art of relaxing.

“I’m a modernist at heart,” says Boatwright, who appreciated the building’s utilitarian roots. “I have no interest in traditional historic renovations or rehabs that are trying to bring something back. But to reconceptualize, as we were able to do here, that gets me going.”

Boatwright speaks with appreciation of Robert’s attention to detail in the design and construction process, a talent that the builder hammered out while renovating numerous houses in downtown Charleston. When Sydney was born, the couple was living in a charming old Wraggborough house that they had restored. But living on the peninsula, where his subcontractors could get him over to a jobsite in minutes, made for a never-ending workday. “Tina put her foot down about me working on weekends,” says Robert, his face registering appreciation. “I was apprehensive at first about moving here. Now it’s hard to get me off the island.”

Still, the journey to completing their home was a three-year process that had its share of twists and turns. Sullivan’s Island was just starting to formulate and enforce new legislation and building codes that made for a drawn-out permitting process. “It’s a little stressful sleeping with your contractor,” jokes Tina. “I knew he would do a good job, but I never pictured anything this cool.”

High on the cool scale are numerous house components reconfigured to create new function and meaning—most dramatically, the house’s one-of-a-kind centerpiece fireplace, a sculptural piece built from the original slate roofing tiles. The hearth—a piece of granite Robert estimates weighs more than 3,000 pounds—was one of five thresholds that remained on the property long after their former use as delivery-bay entryways became obsolete. “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” Tina says, noting that the breakfast nook’s curved ceiling is made from original siding; the bread-board on the kitchen island was also rescued and reconfigured.

Inspired by the industrial past of their home, the couple suited up the place with iconic details that allude to its history. For instance, the family room is accessed through massive, sliding barn doors; its walls are padded burlap. To add a period-authenticity to the kitchen, which is an entirely new addition, the Graves chose a board-and-batten exterior that mimics the cottages beside the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse. Darkened by age, heart-of-pine floorboards from the original property visually anchor the ground level and offer a tangible relic of the work of the building’s earliest occupants—nail hole designs that include somebody’s figure eight.

Count on the current residents to add plenty more character as they open up their home to friends, many of whom are musicians up for late night jam sessions as ­needed. Robert is a guitar player who owned a recording studio in Charles­ton for seven years and worked with local performers such as Edwin McCain, Uncle Mingo, and Eddie Bush. Then he picked up a Time-Life book on home building and tried his hand at it in 1991, when he renovated a Charleston single that had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Hugo.

“I just fell in love with the process,” says Robert, who ended up with a lot more to love just a few years later, when a beautiful redhead with a penchant for rockers spotted him at WAVF’s Wave Fest. “I told my friend, ‘I like that long-haired guy over there,’” recalls Tina. It was a year of spotting each other at various music venues on the peninsula before he finally asked her out.

Today Sydney plays an heirloom piano in the Graves’ great room. Tina secretly took guitar lessons last year, so she could surprise Robert for Christmas. Though there’s no plan to record a family album, the acoustics in their house are certainly getting a tryout. “It just feels great to be here,” says Tina. “Whether there’s a crowd, which is always a blast, or just our family hunkering down, we always have fun.”

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