Native Savannahian architectural designer John Deering and his team update an antebellum cottage, welcoming newcomers to a historic enclave. Beth E. Concepción accepts the invitation. | Photography by Richard Leo Johnson
My drive to the Isle of Hope is a trip back in time. Rounding the bend into this sleepy, 279-year-old community, I’m captivated by the lovingly restored antebellum manors and picturesque cottages that overlook the serene waters of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
The presence of the past here isn’t just physical. Isle of Hope is the kind of tightly knit neighborhood where people look out for each other just as their ancestors did. That closeness, like the shimmering view across Bluff Drive, attracts the envy of visitors near and far.
Sometimes, an outsider even manages to make it in, spotting a rare “For Sale” sign and moving in before another Isle of Hope dynasty takes hold. I’m about to witness one such success story.
I’m meeting Savannah native John Deering, a principal with Greenline Architecture, at his latest renovation project: a raised river cottage built on the foundation of an old horsecar station (think horse-drawn bus) in 1859.
The house sits a little ways back from Bluff Drive, its red tin roof shining like a welcome beacon. With a gentle breeze at my back, I push open the wrought-iron gate. The wide steps to the spacious front porch beckon.
But Deering leads me through the entrance behind those wide front stairs—the door the family uses. No need to stand on ceremony. I feel right at home.
That’s the point, Deering tells me. He’s been working toward that goal ever since the new owners, a family from Atlanta, asked him to help them design their way into the heart of this historic locale.
“The family wanted a retreat—a place where they could invite everyone and relax.”
Out with the “New”
For Deering and his team, that meant removing the “over-the-top” décor from an earlier remodel. They took the house back to basics—stripping away years of ill-suited modifications, fittings and finishes. For example, the dining room featured a brass Georgian chandelier, Georgian-inspired mantelpiece and ornate Brunschwig & Fils wallpaper—not exactly cottage style.
The demolition didn’t stop there. The crew tore out sheetrock ceilings that hid beautifully aged floor joists and decking. They also broke through walls to open up the passageway to the kitchen.
Once the too-formal trappings were gone, it was time to start building the “casual yet elegant” environment the family envisioned. Deering worked with Carter Kay and Nancy Hooff of Carter Kay Interiors of Atlanta to unify the décor by adding a neutral color palette, appropriate fixtures, and reclaimed materials, such as tongue-and-groove wood rescued from an old Maker’s Mark distillery and antique chestnut beams.
The Art of Nature
The team also added artful touches, such as a hand-painted mural in the dining room by well-known artist Bob Christian. He recently retired to the Isle of Hope, so his signature coastal landscape has special significance here.
“We never saw even a sketch until it was done, and it was perfect,” says Kay.
The mural surrounds a tranquil room where a simple, reclaimed chestnut tabletop with iron base takes center stage.
“We wanted a coastal feeling in here, but to have it be sophisticated,” Kay says. “The combination is just dreamy.”
In what almost appears to be an extension of Christian’s mural, each of the home’s ample windows frames a postcard-worthy view of the water or the grounds. The glorious natural light blends with the peaceful palette, radiating warmth and charm. Throughout the house, the outside comes indoors via the blend of calming eggshell-colored fabrics, weathered wood accents, woven grass rugs, wicker furniture and supple leather accent pieces.
Room to Relax
At the back of the house, the “oyster room” serves as the physical transition to the rest of the compound. This inviting gathering area is a far cry from how Deering found it.
“You know those mobile education classrooms—those trailers that pull up next to a school?” Deering asks me. “Well, it looked like one of those, inside and out.”
Now, the room is a study in calming neutrals, anchored by a large bar. Cream-colored coquina stone replaces faux brick flooring. A cozy sitting area supplants a metal freestanding fireplace.
Attention to relaxation is evident everywhere. This is a house that allows for large gatherings, but also invites guests to savor solitude. A padded window seat off one of the bedrooms begs for a book and a beverage. A chaise lounge in the oyster room looks like the perfect spot for a nap.
Once they had healed the home’s interior, Deering and his team turned their attention to the grounds: three lush acres embraced by 200-year-old live oak trees that I find just outside the oyster room door. The house and carriage house are original to the property, but the family wanted to add more entertaining space and living quarters for guests. Deering worked with fellow Savannahian Linn Gresham of Haute Décor to design two suitably rustic outbuildings: a smoke/cookhouse and a boat/guesthouse.
According to Deering, the family wanted a “fish camp”-style building for entertaining, and that’s the vibe inside the cookhouse, where two Big Green Eggs await the next cookout. Modeled after an 1850s guard house in Savannah’s Trustees’ Garden, the exterior is made of brick and stone salvaged from the home’s old fence posts.
The two-story guest house, affectionately known as the “barn,” shelters a storage area and exercise room on the bottom floor, with a vintage canoe hanging in the dog trot. Suitably impressed, I walk up the staircase made of reclaimed heart pine to the guest suite, where I smell the most wonderful aroma: a mixture of hay, lemon and wood with a little eucalyptus thrown in for good measure. Gresham’s goal was to furnish the barn with items that felt lived in and loved, much like the space itself. Seemingly found items, such as vintage oushak rugs, an aged trunk and the wrought-iron bed, now live harmoniously with refined elements such as lambs’ wool upholstery, linen bedding, and modern lighting and hardware.
“Like Savannah itself, it’s a place of age in the modern world,” Gresham tells me. “It’s full of surprising contradictions, which lend it a magnetic character.”
This serene space overlooks a secret garden with a fountain that appears to have been lifted from one ofSavannah’s historic squares. It is a deliberate referential—and reverential—symbol.
All over the property, the new mixes harmoniously with the old, just as the new owners weave themselves into the existing fabric of their timeless neighborhood. All with a little help from their Savannah friends.
The Stats »
Year built: 1859
Square footage: 3,900
6 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, 3 powder rooms
Time to complete: 11 months
The Referrals »
Architects/planners: Greenline Architecture
Interior designer (main house): Carter Kay and Nancy Hooff, Carter Kay Interiors
Interior designer (outbuildings): Linn Gresham, Haute Décor
Contractor/builder: J. T. Turner Construction
Tile/flooring: Floor & Décor and Cowart Floor Surfacing
Paint/wallpaper: Armstrong Painting
Windows/doors: Marvin Windows
Lighting design: Circa Lighting
Landscape design: Alan Glassberg and Danny Nelson
Hardscape design: Danny Nelson
Electrician: C. S. Hurd Electric
Carpenter: Terry Lumkin and Steve Hiatt
Plumber: Hutson Plumbing
Landscaper: The Nelson Group
HVAC: Galbreath & Sons
Appliances: Livingoods Appliances
Art: Bob Christian, Ansley West