Decorating Feature: Downtown: mod riverfront penthouse
Written ByMelissa Bigner
Photographs byBrie Williams
Sylvia and David Pearlstein enjoy views from the top, by way of a reinvented riverfront penthouse with wide-open rooms and minimalist décor
In today’s housing market, real estate listings have become a shouting match of superlatives, and thus phrases like “breathtaking views” tend to be overused. Surely Charleston is blessed with gorgeous settings aplenty, but every so often you happen upon a panorama that really takes your breath away. So it is on the penthouse floor at Dockside Condominiums on Concord Street.
Step into Sylvia and David Pearlstein’s 2,400-square-foot loft and immediately become airborne, hovering over the neighboring South Carolina Aquarium, seeing eye-to-eye with the Ravenel Bridge, watching the port’s LEGO-like shipping containers get shuttled to and fro. Note too that as developed as Charleston’s coastline may seem, from this vantage the shaggy marsh clinging to the banks of the Cooper River stretches on eternally. Thanks to a series of 6 1⁄2 x 6 1⁄4- foot windows, the unfettered view is breathtaking indeed.
“At first, I thought that like most beautiful things, the view would become familiar, fade into the background, and lose its impact,”says David. “But I’m now convinced that will never happen.”
“It’s true,” chimes in Sylvia. “We comment on it everyday.”
And while today the easygoing and casually mod San Francisco transplants can’t imagine waking without such a vista spreading below, Dockside wasn’t even in their sights when they started house hunting in Charleston back in 2005. The two, who moved here after a Lowcountry vacation swept them away, packed up their 1913 Edwardian home in the City by the Bay, found a temporary condo down on south Rutledge, and began looking for more permanent digs.
Taken with the city center, the walkable lifestyle, and classic architecture, Sylvia and David assumed they’d fall for a typical older Charleston dwelling. Then their agent took them to Dockside.
Finished in 1975, it was—and remains—a rarity on the peninsula: a waterfront high rise with spitting-distance boat slips and amenities such as a glass-topped heated indoor pool surrounded by a minor jungle of tropical plants. Inside, with public spaces decked out in pale blue walls and cream trim, it was ’70s swank at its best. Still, even though the units were filled with an array of local and second-homers alike, it fell off the real estate radar, particularly when street-level historic home renovations thrived post-Hugo. But then the city crept northward, the Aquarium and IMAX Theatre were built, and anything with a downtown zip code was considered golden. Thus Dockside, which was something of a time capsule considering its still-blue decor, started to smoke again.
By the time the Pearlsteins were introduced to the place in late 2005, the penthouse floors ranked as coveted, million-dollar property. Encouraged to more or less close their eyes on the walk in and elevator ride up, they did as told, and then stepped into an 18th-floor unit where they were sufficiently blown away. Though it “looked like a bomb had gone off in here,” says Sylvia, because the unit was gutted down to nothing more than “lumpy and bumpy” concrete and wires, the decisive pair was hooked. And as quickly as they knew the condo was meant for them, they also knew that the only way to showcase the prime perch was to go modern.
Enter Eddie Fava, of e.e. fava architects, etc. After interviewing scores of local design firms, Sylvia felt that more than anyone else, Eddie understood their vision. On surface level, the Guggenheim Fellow might appear an unlikely choice; after all, he is known nationally for bringing historic properties like the Aiken-Rhett House, the Spoleto headquarters, and the Historic Charleston Foundation offices back to life. But the couple loved his enthusiasm for their project and sensed Fava wouldn’t stereotype the style they craved.
“Within Dockside, most units were traditionally detailed and compartmentalized, not taking full advantage of the available space, light, and volume,” says Fava. “We very, very deliberately took the opposite approach to Sylvia and David’s penthouse.”
Sylvia agrees. “We knew that we wanted walls blown out and an open feel. And we knew we needed it modern, but not sterile or immaturely modern. It still had to have trappings of more established taste. So I knew in my mind what I wanted the end result to be, but I didn’t know how to get there.”
Under Eddie’s guidance, the collaborating began. Over the next year and a half, the threesome walked the concrete shell, talked out ideas, sketched walls, and debated solutions.
Finally they settled on the location of the stairs (shifted to the right of the entry doors to allow for an uninterrupted view); decided on a two-story, four-square-style wall of windows to maximize the scenery from the sitting room and entrance; chose an open floorplan on the first floor; encased the upstairs bedrooms with glass walls; opted for African Wenge floors (rather than the initially considered porcelain tiles); and landed on the perfect shade of white to amplify the airiness of the space.
As installation moved forward, Sylvia set about the decor. Only a few pieces of their San Francisco abode would suit their new aesthetic, so she got to shopping. Spenzac in Charlotte, North Carolina, proved a great resource for contemporary furniture; Crate & Barrel supplied floor coverings; Upper King spots like Dwelling, Lesesne, Max Jerome, and Nancy Koltes at Home were favorite spots for accents and more; and Internet retailers filled in the holes. Because space in the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath was at such a premium, Eddie’s AutoCAD software program was put to work laying out each room.
As for that breathtaking view? The Pearlsteins now joke they don’t know how anyone could live without glass walls. “One of my favorite things,” says Sylvia, “is that from the master bedroom, you can see right down to the little dock where David has his boat. You get the feeling that you’re buoyant, that you’re almost floating on the water.”
David adds, “When the light’s right and there’s a wind blowing across the harbor, we see reflections of the waves across the exterior panels of the Aquarium. And storm-watching here is absolutely phenomenal. The clouds move in, swift and intense, and lightning hits the tops of the bridge. Then there’s the sunrise and the sunset—we see both. And the industrial aspect of the port? I love it all.”
“It’s so calming and with so much light…” Sylvia trails off and smiles toward the open balcony door that’s letting a cool, clean breeze swirl in from the waterscape spreading out below. “We’re thrilled it came together as we envisioned,” she finishes.