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February 2008

The Charleston Home:
Federal Reserve
Written By: 
Bryan Hunter
Photographs By: 
Brie Williams

A couple lovingly fill an 1805 row house with fine period antiques

The row house occupying 24 Queen Street is snuggled between its two sisters, only steps away from The Footlight Theatre to the right and a block away from Dock Street Theatre to the left.

“That works out well for us because we really enjoy theater, so we can just walk to a performance,” says homeowner and antiques collector Michael Doniger. “Then at intermission, we don’t have to stand in line for a drink, we can just walk next door to our house,” he laughs. While the Dock Street and Footlight have both seen their share of encores, behind the rather unassuming restraint of the house’s Federal façade, Michael and his wife, Janice, have been creating some real drama of their own since they moved here from the Northeast in 2004.

The house, along with the six adjoining dwellings, was built by William Johnson, Sr., and his son, William, Jr., around 1805 when Charleston was experiencing significant post-Revolutionary economic success. Typical of most row houses, the ground floor served for business functions while the living quarters occupied the two and a half stories above. Today, the ground floor houses a kitchen opening to a bricked rear courtyard and a dining room at the front of the house. There, an unusual but striking piece adorns one wall: a graceful circa-1810 pier table with gilt details and curving dolphin brackets that support a mahogany top. The original occupants, who used this space as a shop, would doubtlessly be astounded to learn that the piece once adorned George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. “It’s unusual,” Michael says of the piece. “A number of antiques authorities have examined it, but no one has come up with a firm idea of where it was made, although most doubt it’s American.” Although the history of this piece is quite unusual, it typifies the sort of diligence the Donigers have employed in furnishing
their house.

“Many of these pieces were in our New York City co-op and ­former houses in Connecticut,” Michael says, the latter referring to a country cottage followed by a converted barn where the couple lived before relocating to Charleston. “But these things have never looked better than they do here.” Such serendipity bears testament to the high level of early 19th-century craftsmanship, because most of the Donigers’ period antiques were crafted in New England and New York during the same era the house was built. Proper scale based on sound mathematical and geometric principles in both architecture and furnishings was such a firm tenet of Federal design that the pieces do, indeed, seem to be made for the space.

Ironically, though, the builders of the house hailed from New York before settling in Charleston in 1741, where they experienced great economic success (William the younger, who attended Princeton, had a legal and political career that culminated in his appointment as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by President Thomas Jefferson).

Original architectural details in the Donigers’ home reflect the wealth of the early republic. Just as in a play in which seasoned actors bring their characters to life with subtle restraint, the classicism of the Federal house embodies understated refinement. Michael points out an original wooden fireplace surround and mantel anchoring the second-floor drawing room, noting the elegant simplicity of its ornamentation, which relate to the crown moulding framing the ceiling and the white-painted wainscoting that terminates in a chair rail beneath light cream-­colored plaster walls. As further testimony to the Donigers’ dedication to details and period accuracy, a significant part of the supporting cast in the couple’s collection, both in the parlor and throughout the house, is period lighting, most of which have been converted to electricity. “Lamps are an important detail that a lot of people ignore when furnishing a house with antiques,” Michael explains.

Adding drama to the parlor, the back wall is punctuated by a wide French door framing a breathtaking scene: The church tower of St. Philip’s looms over the brick-walled courtyard. Even there, conversation pieces abound—an odd statuary head carved from granite that startled Janice when she found it buried beneath the snow in Connecticut and a flame finial from an old building that once stood in Richmond.

For Janice, antiques have always been in her blood: Her family owned an antiques shop in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Some of the furniture, paintings, and ­serving pieces that grace the house are from her family. Michael, however, came to antiques later in life. “I gained an interest and started collecting well into my adulthood and then began learning more and more about antiques,” he says.

“When you get to a certain level of collecting, you really have to know what you’re doing—it’s very much buyer beware—so I sought guidance from reputable dealers.” The result of this education is evident everywhere, from the less formal second-floor parlor to the bedrooms on the third floor. Yet the Donigers’ real gift is how they live with and enjoy their collection: nothing seems precious or stuffy. “We believe that if you consider something too fine to enjoy or use, then there’s no use in having it,” Janice says.

Although the Donigers already had most of the necessary furnishings for the house in place (although they had to store some), they did hire local interior decorator Bowe Pritchard for advice on what to do with it all. “She helped us place the furniture and helped pick the paint colors and fabrics,” Michael says. Subdued colors from the ­historic palates of Benjamin Moore, Martin-Senour, and Farrow & Ball form a complementary backdrop for furniture and artwork rather than clamor for attention.

Considering all these witnesses of the past in such a setting leads Janice to ponder, “None of us really own antiques. They were here long before us and will likely be here long after we’re gone. We’re really just stewards of them for a time.” As the sounds of St. Philip’s clock bells peal across the courtyard below, one would be hard pressed to disagree with her philosophy.

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