The City Magazine Since 1975

Beachy Keen

Beachy Keen
August 2019

A classic Sullivan’s Island cottage gets a thoughtful restoration

The humble beach house is quickly becoming an endangered species on Charleston’s barrier islands. So when a Greenwich, Connecticut, family found an early-1900s classic—complete with original heart pine and beadboard—on the market, they wisely snapped it up. The last thing they wanted to do was renovate away its quirky charm. Instead, with some reconfiguration and a bit of freshening—courtesy of plenty of white paint, some vintage furnishings, and copious local art—the time-honored cottage was ready for another century of vacation-hosting.

“We wanted to get out of the Northeast for the summer and expose our kids to a different way of life—to the culture and lifestyle of Charleston,” says the homeowner. Having grown up on Pawleys Island and enjoyed plenty of time in the Holy City, she and her husband began bringing their own brood (a son, 13, and a daughter, 11) to Sullivan’s seven years ago. They quickly fell into a routine of beach lounging, surfing, biking, and relaxing at High Thyme restaurant in the evenings.

Purchasing a home on Sullivan’s was always in the plan; the challenge was finding the right place. When the Pettigrew Street cottage came on the market (for the first time in 60 years), they jumped at the chance to own the historic gem, perfectly situated just one block from the ocean and one block from the town center.

“We love this house, as it’s so authentically Sullivan’s. It just needed a few coats of paint and a little reimagining of the spaces,” says the owner. When built in 1910, the structure likely comprised just three rooms and the back porch (today’s living room). But as was common then, the residence grew, room by room, as families expanded, ultimately reaching a rambling 2,800 square feet.

To adapt the house for life with two kids and a constant flow of friends and family, the homeowners turned to New York- and Los Angeles-based interior designer Kevin Isbell. “In beach houses, the key is lots of little spaces for people to tuck away in, to go and be alone when they want,” he explains. “This makes for a much more enjoyable beach living experience.”

BIG IMAGINATION: For the living area, Isbell created three spaces in the former dining room. Serena and Lily wicker pendants and a slip-covered sofa delineate the main seating area, capped by a vintage hooded wicker chair from Chairish.

Isbell recognized that one small structural change would make the parents more at home: combining two of the five bedrooms into a large master with an ensuite bath and dressing room, plus a small office. But his cleverest stroke—reconfiguring the main living space—involved nothing more than a creative furniture plan. Instead of using the home’s largest room for dining, as the previous owners had, Isbell dedicated it to everyday living. “I was able to fit in two seating areas and a breakfast nook, complete with a dining banquette,” he says.

To ensure the family could still host big gatherings indoors, he brought an expandable table into the small former living room just off the porch and transformed the space with a coat of bold blue paint. “In the 98.9 percent of the time that they’re not using this as a dining room—because the family is eating outside on the porch—it’s a beautiful entry with a grand table in the middle of it,” says Isbell. But at a moment’s notice, the table can grow to seat 10; its chairs can be collected from spots where they’ve been in use throughout the house.

The “blue room” is part of the home’s original footprint, evidenced by the gorgeous heart pine floors. To highlight these vintage marvels, Isbell painted all the other flooring white. The beadboard—original in every room other than the newly created master suite—got the same traditional color treatment, honoring the home’s history while creating a crisp backdrop for the layering in of color and texture through art and furnishings.

“We wanted the place to be bold and bright but not overtly beachy,” says Isbell. The homeowner had a strong desire for wicker, especially vintage, and Isbell turned up pieces for every room. His first find was a charming wicker elephant that now functions as a bar in the living room. (It sparked a theme of its own, with elephants popping up in the form of an ornament on the reclaimed mantelpiece, a towel ring in the kitchen, and a pillow in the guest room. “If the trunk is up, it’s good luck—so that house is full of luck,” Isbell says.)

A hooded wicker chair scored from Chairish strikes a dramatic note in the main living room, while a Franco Albini rattan armchair from Instagram seller OneofaFindCharleston offsets a blue love seat, positioned to neatly separate the breakfast nook from the second, smaller seating area off the main living room. An innovative wicker light fixture, inspired by a grape-like bunch of lights the homeowner had seen in Bali, is one of her favorite pieces. Isbell fashioned it with three round pendants from Serena and Lily and had the electrician cluster them together for a whimsical focal point in the entry room.

(Left to right) A headboard and rug from Serena and Lily lend a touch of girlish charm to the daughter’s bedroom. The lucky elephant theme continues on a pillow in the guest room, where a vintage white wicker headboard and table brighten the smaller space.

Functional, modern pieces complete the home’s aesthetic. For example, a rattan media console from Crate & Barrel—put to use as a sideboard in the living room—brings in a hint of mid-century modern style. A custom sectional from Quality Upholstery on John’s Island fills up the family room, that’s tucked just off the living room. When only the family of four is home, they gravitate here. “It’s the perfect place to cozy up on a rainy day,” says the designer.

“The homeowner wanted this place to be truly lived in and enjoyed,” says Isbell. “We used a lot of Crypton, a fabric that is virtually indestructible as well as maintenance-free.” Resilient furnishings are an essential addition when Beardcats’ gelato, homemade lemonade, and plenty of surf and sand are on the day’s menu.

Passionate about local art, the homeowner put her white walls to good use as a veritable art gallery for Lowcountry artists. A large, commissioned piece from Teil Duncan—replete with her signature colorful umbrellas—and an expansive beach scene by Shannon Wood adorn the walls of the main rooms. Smaller works from Chelsea Goer, Emily Brown, and other talents discovered through the Charleston Artist Collective can be found in the home’s numerous nooks and crannies. “One of the many great things about Charleston is that there are so many young, creative people doing wonderful things here,” says the homeowner.

Over the summers spent on Sullivan’s, her daughter has dedicated countless hours to decorating the family’s golf cart for the island’s annual Fourth of July parade, and she has a hunch that the area’s creativity—and the island’s summer-loving community spirit—is successfully rubbing off on her family. “It’s truly wonderful here,” she says. “Kids dashing between the houses, running lemonade stands, taking trips to the candy store—just a whole lot of nothing in the best possible way.”