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A young family falls for an 1871 Old Village single house and transforms its disjointed quirks into divine living spaces
Mom was right: Falling for handsome and charmingly quirky is one thing; marrying and living with it (whether spouse or house) is another. Four years ago, when Catherine and Clay McCullough first encountered the quaint ambiance of this circa-1871 Old Village house, they were smitten. Original heart pine floors honed to a sweet honey color—swoon. Splashy sunlight, classic proportions, good solid bones—uh-oh, weak in the knees. Terrific location, ample kid-friendly yard, and appealing house/lot orientation—hooked. Hmm, a few out-of-kilter walls and patchwork floor plan? Sure, baby, we can work things out…. At least that’s what this young couple, with one toddler and a baby on the way, banked on. “When we first looked at the house, I immediately felt its charm,” says Catherine, who fell for details like the original simple plank doors in the two upstairs bedrooms, rooms perfectly sized for sweet-dreaming tots. “But it was a bit like a rabbit warren,” she adds. “You’d wander around and get lost; it was confusing. I hoped it didn’t have to be that way. It was a great house, but I felt like no one had given it an opportunity to be what it could be.” Up, Over, & Back Down Much of the home’s come-hither allure is directly tied toits vintage stature—a certain seductiveness in the fact that it’d been around the block a few times, or at least been on the block forever. Before the Civil War, the property was part of Lot 15 of the original Town of Mount Pleasant. It was owned by planter Sam Riley, one of the commissioners directed to expand the village, responsible for laying out Pitt Street to Hibben. But Riley never built on the land; instead, he sold it to John Wittschen, a German baker who built the current house and operated a large bakery on the premises. Wittschen also served as Mount Pleasant’s first postmaster (hence it’s possible, but not confirmed, that his house served as the town’s first post office). Boasting original framing with mortise and tenon-joined hand-sawn rafters and purlins, the house “helps exemplify the character of the original 19th-century village of Mount Pleasant,” according to historic documentation. To Catherine and Clay, it exemplified what they’d been looking for—a fabulous old framework for contemporary living, with enough flexibility to still bend for and with a family. The challenges were multi-leveled, so to speak. As in five different levels—the result of various tacked-on renovations over the last century. There was the original single house (the first-floor living and dining rooms with two bedrooms upstairs) with a galley kitchen where a porch most likely had once been. Then four steps up from the kitchen, a den and guest bedroom had, at some point, been added on across the back of the house; then one step up from that level, a spacious master bedroom suite (another to-swoon-for aspect for the McCulloughs) had been hitched to the southern end of the house by well-known contractor Harry Hitopoulos, who owned the house in the 1960s. From just outside the master bedroom, a stairwell leads down to a family room, then two steps down from that was the ground-floor basement, with a finished storage-slash-playroom. Only you couldn’t get to it from the back staircase, you had to go up and over to access it from the original front stairwell in the old part of the house. Confused yet? The owners prior to the McCulloughs had likewise been seduced by the house’s historic charm, but struggled with, and eventually surrendered to, its maze of stairs and disjointedness. “We didn’t have kids when we bought the house, and then had two back-to-back,” explains Kathleen Brunson, who sold to the McCulloughs. “It’s a wonderful house, fantastic for hide-and-seek and for parties, but it was all chopped up, and fixing that was more than I could take on.” A further complication was that this is the only structure in Mount Pleasant under protective easement with the Historic Charleston Foundation, meaning any renovation plans had to leave the home’s exterior intact. This (Lovely) Old House So what’s a determined young family to do? Well, accept the limitations, embrace the possibilities, optimize both, and dig in. And dig in they did, including tackling a mysterious huge hump in the basement that made the old laundry room virtually unusable (unless you were a hunchback) and that kept the front part of the ground-floor playroom inaccessible from the back family room. In the process of digging that out and leveling the ground floor to link up the front and back rooms, they discovered an old pipe that led to a 20- to 30-foot-deep round brick cistern buried in the yard, with three Civil War-era rifles inside. “They’re all rusted out and hardly identifiable, but it really lets you know this is an old house,” says Catherine. They ended up utilizing the cistern as part of a French drainage system to manage water run-off. “The smartest thing we did was wait a year and a half before doing any substantial work,” notes Catherine. Figuring out how they actually lived in the house helped clarify their objectives. They had initially toyed with creating a big, updated kitchen, but ended up keeping the existing galley kitchen footprint, streamlining cabinet and pantry storage, and creating a built-in banquette as an inviting and comfy family dining and gathering space. Raising the dropped ceiling and widening the stairs leading up to the den further opened the kitchen, already graced with great windows and plentiful light. Catherine chose classic marble countertops and juxtaposed them with mod light fixtures to create a clean, timeless-yet-contemporary feel. The only actual addition to the house was an eight-by-eight-foot “connector” on the ground floor, replacing the cumbersome dirt hump with a swanky new laundry and mudroom and full bath. This finally linked up the front and back and restored a sense of flow. In lieu of a big, new kitchen, the McCulloughs compensated with a big, new bluestone pool, with a pergola dining area and a brick patio. “We had this beautiful yard, but it was so underutilized,” says Catherine. Now with the pool and loggia opening up to the downstairs family room, the family does a lot more cooking and hanging out down there, including roasting marshmallows and hotdogs year-round in the poolside brick fire pit. “We love it,” she says.“It makes any night feel like Christmas Eve.” As Mom would also say, good marriages take work and commitment, and the McCulloughs know this. They persevered to make their home a terrific marriage of historic and new, classic and contemporary, quirky and quaint. “I like the mixture of funkiness with the flow that is now more intuitive,” says Catherine. “Our goal was to make it a little less odd without losing its quirky charm. But it’s still hard to hang a picture in the dining room—the old walls are so off kilter.” Rather than glossing over all the imperfections (though they did address many, like the room downstairs that had 50 electrical outlets), they highlighted the home’s assets, and gave the old bones a spiffy décor and fresh, young spirit. “I feel like hugging Catherine and Clay,” says former owner Kathleen Brunson. “They really hung in there and made the house all it could be.” Cameron, now almost four, and Rodgers, two, are glad their folks hung in there, too. As sister and brother play hide-and-seek throughout their updated digs, it’s clear that the hidden bonuses of an eccentric old home can, in fact, come out and play.