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September 2013

The Charleston Home:
Modern History
Written By: 
Ellen McGauley
Photographs By: 
Peter Frank Edwards

Local art enthusiasts Michele and Mike Seekings team up with muralist Karl Beckwith Smith to update a grand 1850s single 


Michele and Mike Seekings scoured the Charleston real estate market for three years for the right house. Living in a petite single on Pinckney he’d renovated before the two met, they poked in and out of downtown listings. But nothing was quite right.

Then came something interesting in quiet Harleston Village, a commanding three-bay, side-hall single house—an historic brick number made more striking, perhaps, by its elevated façade and stout Victorian entrance. The Seekings walked in, looked around, and said, “We’ll take it.”

Just like that, more or less. Ask them why—what it was about this one, of all the dapper dwellings they’d tried on for size—and you’ll likely hear something simple and sure, like, “Well, it just fit.”

For his part, Mike—City Council representative for District Eight, the same in which this house sits—credits good proportions for being able to walk into a big house like this (more than 6,000 square feet) without feeling like it swallows you whole: “This never felt like an oversized house,” he says. “It felt like home.” Michele saw a residence with rooms that flow well one into the next—the double parlor into the library, the library into the modernized kitchen, kitchen into loungey sitting room, and so forth.

This manse—with its romantic piazzas that sagged like Spanish moss and soaring entryway with double vestibule doors—made sense to them. And so did snagging a house that comes with a long and colorful Charleston history. Shortly before the Civil War, local merchant Ettsel Adams (for whom the house is named) crafted the three-story residence with a slate-roofed kitchen house in back. It changed hands quickly to a pair of sisters who lived in it through the war, then sold for $7,500 to a family who retrofitted the dwelling as a tenement. Later, it became a parsonage for the Citadel Square Baptist Church, changed hands a few more times—mainly used as apartments in the middle part of the 20th century—then was eventually renovated back to a single-family dwelling.

Surprisingly, much of the original fabric of the house survived. In fact, some of the major alterations made over the course of these change-ups were strong selling points for the pair. For instance, the previous owners renovated the kitchen and extended it into the second floor of the kitchen house to create a comfortable, elevated family room. Above it, a bedroom had been converted into an airy and open master bath—one that, despite modern trimmings like glass shelving and sleek slate tiles, retained exposed brick walls and cedar ceiling beams (both original to the house) along with a breezy doorway to the piazza.

A half century’s worth of updates aside, Mike and Michele had work to do. “Priority one was to make sure it was a solid, sound house,” he says. “We knew that going in.”

Six months of structural housekeeping ensued as they shored up those piazzas, fixed warped walls, and updated aging ducts. This out of the way, they could turn to their second, and considerably more appealing, priority: to adapt the old 19th-century building to their life in present-day Charleston. In short, this meant adding art, color, and texture that reflected their lively, work-live-entertain lifestyle and the creative community that surrounds them.  

Longtime friend and noted local muralist Karl Beckwith Smith was central to this, says Mike. “He was involved in the design of every room in the house.” The three went through colors and finishes together, and then the artist set to work on colorful patterns and lively murals, marbleized hearths and other decorative finishes.

“Every inch was done by hand; there wasn’t a roller used,” adds Mike.

Beckwith Smith was also a key player in curating the art collection that came next. “Ninety percent of the artwork we have was done by artists who live within a half mile of this house,” says Mike.

That’s no accident. Both sitting members on the board of the Gibbes Museum and avid supporters of the arts community, the Seekings invited a veritable Who’s Who of visual artists over for drinks and a creative proposition after they moved in—folks like Honor Marks, David Boatwright, photographer Brianna Stello, plus plenty more. “We said, ‘See these walls? We need to fill them and we want you to do it,’” Mike recalls. The artists took the Seekings up on their offer and created something of a residential art gallery: dozens of works hang throughout the large dwelling, from a nude by Anne Darby Parker to a portrait by Timothy Pakron, along with an array of pieces by Jill Hooper, Tim Hussey, Ben Hollingsworth, Brian Rutenberg, and Fred Jamar.

“It’s important to us to collect and showcase local art,” says Michele. “Having a personal connection to these artists adds an extra dimension to the house, a layer that makes it very dynamic.”

And that was the higher objective all along. “While working on this house, our goal was always to give it life, rather than take away from what was already here,” says Mike. “We designed it so that there’s no unused space.” Michele, who works from home as a pharmaceuticals representative, carved an office out of a third-floor bedroom, keeping that top floor in constant use. This was also the idea behind creating a parlor out of an extra bedroom adjacent to the master. “We knocked down the wall separating the spaces, and now we use both rooms every day,” says Mike.

The house, though historic, isn’t a museum. True, it’s got a bevy of old mantels and banisters, deep cornices and walk-through six-over-nine windows out to the piazzas, but there’s energy here. “It’s not a relic,” Mike adds. “The art, the craftsmanship, the way we live—this house is very much alive.”


Guests Welcome
The Seekings turn a disconnected, dirt-floor room under their kitchen into modern guest quarters and a chic wine cellar

The Problem
The ground-floor room of the kitchen house wasn’t connected to the residence. It had dirt floors and, after years of neglect, the walls were falling in.  

The Solution
Dufford Young Architects teamed up with the Seekings to design a reinforced block and stucco addition off the rear of the house, containing a stairwell with hand-wrought
railings by Sean Ahern.
 
The Guest Quarters
Together with Dow Construction, they spent a year taking the ground-floor of the kitchen house back to the original brick walls. They repointed the brick; preserved the two fireplaces; and added steel reinforcements, beams, and heart pine floors. “A primary part of the restoration of this room was keeping it as original as possible,” says Mike.

The Wine Cellar
Mike noted that the small hyphen space (added well prior) had the natural framework for a wine cellar. They water-proofed the small space and added plumbing, HVAC, and electrical, plus wood and slate surfaces and a contemporary glass
door to carve out a wine storage room.

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Ellen McGauley is Charleston’s home editor. She scouts digs from Awendaw down to Edisto, reports on market trends, and lives in a single house downtown.




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