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Modern Oasis: How a Lowcountry escape on the Stono River helped one couple reimagine retirement

Modern Oasis: How a Lowcountry escape on the Stono River helped one couple reimagine retirement
June 2024

The modern riverside retreat on James Island blurs the lines between indoors and out

Sonya and David Dunn’s long-term plan had been to retire to their condo in downtown Charleston and spend as much time as possible sailing the East Coast in their Oyster 46 sailboat, Voyageur. The couple, both from South Carolina, had lived in Columbia but maintained a pied-à-terre in the Holy City for years, with the intention of moving there when David completed his career in computer software.

However, after the pandemic scuppered their sailing dreams, they looked for another way to spend as much time as possible on the water. Their thoughts turned to a riverfront lot on James Island they’d bought years before as an investment. “We hadn’t planned on building out there; we just wanted access to water,” explains Sonya. She and David would often spend time swimming in the Stono, fishing, crabbing, kayaking, and sometimes just sitting on the dock, soaking up the scenery.

“We built the dock before anything else, and at one point, hoped we could just build a pool house and wait to build a main house,” notes Sonya. But those plans weren’t in line with permit requirements, and the more time they spent sitting on the dock, the more they realized it was the perfect place for them. “It’s so peaceful out here,” says Sonya, noting that it’s surprisingly easy to get downtown, where they still spend a lot of time. With the city beginning to feel more crowded, the couple “bit the bullet and built the house,” she says.

Dubbed “Roosterfish” after the Dunns’ alma mater, the University of South Carolina, their newly built, 3,800-square-foot, three-bedroom home is situated on a lot in what was once Grimball Plantation, one of the last rural spots on the island. Rather than choose a traditional Lowcountry vernacular, they sought a more streamlined look. “I’ve always been drawn to modern architecture,” says Sonya, noting that their longtime home in Columbia was midcentury modern.

Modern Minimalism: The open dining/kitchen space is centered on the oval table the couple inherited from the prior owners of their midcentury modern home in Columbia. The table is accented by a custom Cam Crockford “pick-up stick” brass light fixture and black wicker chairs, which pull from the striking slab of Nero Dorato marble in the backsplash and quartzite countertops.

The couple turned to architects Rush Dixon and Structures Building Company to craft a contemporary coastal residence that embraces the natural landscape. “They sought a ‘modern but Lowcountry’ home, a hospitable gathering place for outdoor living, entertaining, and hosting guests,” says architect Judy Dixon.

The couple, also avid travelers, shared details from interesting properties they’d encountered around the globe with Dixon and interior designer Deborah Way. In particular, one house in the Bahamas with a wide expanse of glass inspired the design, with both the main residence and the pool house incorporating Euro-Wall Systems. These sliding-glass doors accordion to open the spaces entirely to the outdoors. “Blurring the lines between indoors and outdoors became paramount as the Dunns wanted to experience the river views and sunsets as much as possible,” says Dixon.

The couple’s wish list also included one-floor living, with guest rooms and a flex space upstairs. “I wanted a studio space for design projects,” says Sonya. “The idea is to have it one day be a space for live-in home health care. It’s currently a gym and David’s office.” Functionality was another big priority. “I hate clutter, so I wanted a lot of storage,” says Sonya. Way devised several ingenious solutions built into furniture, such as cubbies carved into closets flanking the beds in the guest rooms and extra storage under the bed in the primary bedroom.

Cabana Fever: The spacious pool house can double as a guest room and features several midcentury modern pieces from the Dunns’ Columbia home. A special find is the vintage GE stereo console, for playing their collection of LPs.

“Having lived on a sailboat, they have a more minimalist approach and a love of creative, hidden storage, allowing for a tidied simplicity that frees them up to spend more time enjoying the beauty of the outdoors,” says Way. In the kitchen, every appliance is expertly enclosed in cabinets designed by Way and built by Hostetler Custom Cabinetry—there’s a designated spot for everything. “I like things that can be put away but maintain their functionality,” says Sonya.

The clean lines of the open-plan kitchen/dining/living space are accentuated with the use of natural materials. From the cabinets and walls to the white oak floors, wood dominates the home, accented with dark stone, white walls, and a monochromatic palette. All work in tandem to showcase the view beyond the large glass wall that leads to the pool and deep-water dock beyond. “We get a full sunset view here, and it’s just breathtaking,” says Sonya.

This open living area is the heart of the home for the couple, who are avid entertainers. A sometimes professional chef, Sonya loves to host parties “usually with a costume theme of some sort,” she notes. They also have a regular flow of visitors taking advantage of the luxurious guest/pool house—complete with a vintage vinyl collection and the best views on the property. “I joke that our Wi-Fi password should be ‘three nights max,’” she says.

Pops of color come courtesy of the couple’s artwork, much of which was created by friends. One special piece—a striking bottle-cap painting depicting a “Roosterfish” in Gamecock colors by local artist Molly B. Right—was commissioned especially for the house and has pride of place in the living room. Its bright blues and reds pop against the clean-lined wood wall.

River Rooms: Upon entering the home, visitors are immediately connected to views of the Stono (above, right). The main house is aligned along a single axis, with a bridge connecting to the spacious pool deck and down to the deepwater dock.

Organic elements are found throughout the home, interspersed by white plaster walls, providing a modern aesthetic that blurs the lines between inside and out. Fluted wooden walls in the foyer, repeated as the headboard in the primary bedroom, provide architectural interest. The headboard, paired with deep windows that frame the bed and showcase the lush green foliage outside, conjures the feeling of sleeping in a forest.

The combination of minimal ornamentation, a strong connection to the outdoors, and clean design is complemented by Way’s furniture selections. Mixing new pieces with vintage ones adds a touch of whimsy to the cool, contemporary spaces. For example, in the living room, two Lucite stools covered in a paisley fabric flank the fireplace, adding a pop of playfulness to the room dominated by sleek white sofas and a stark black coffee table. “I loved their openness and appreciation of a curated mixture of midcentury pieces to soften and warm up different rooms,” says the interior designer.

Lighting, both natural and artificial, also played a key role in the home’s look and feel. The Dunns had smart lighting installed, which can be dimmed, brightened, and have its color temperature controlled by an app. They enlisted Way to create a number of lighting scenes that complement the decor and help conjure different moods—such as “relax,” “party time,” “cooking,” and “sunset”—through the play of light at different times of the day.

For Sonya and David, swapping a life on the ocean for a life on the banks of the Stono River may not have been part of the plan, but it has turned out to be better than anything they could have imagined. “We love it here so much,” says Sonya, “We have no regrets. I have to pinch myself to believe that I live here.”