Passed down through generations, a Tybee beach cottage ages gracefully. Written by Emily Testa. Photography by Beau Kester. Dining porch & Exterior photography by Dickson Dunlap.
At the end of a oceanside street on Tybee Island, a classic raised cottage sits tall, like a stately matriarch. This summer, the cottage turns 83, much older than its owner, who’s been coming here for her entire life. The house has never left the family, and a few steps past the front door is all it takes to see that the family has never left the house, either.
Every surface of the 2,600-square-foot five-bedroom cottage is layered with meaning and memory, from antique Shaker-style chairs and side tables, to old photographs on the giant stone fireplace, to the living room’s original paneling, stained dark with extra-strong coffee. “It just about knocked the workers out,” the owner says, repeating what must be a favorite family story. “They had to work in two-hour shifts.”
Back then, Tybee was billed as a summer retreat for lucky Savannahians, and this prominent Jewish family was among the first group to build here. The current owner remembers the annual tradition of packing up the car right after school ended—“We even brought the television in the backseat,” she says. Her mother went into town on Fridays to have her hair done and shop for the week’s groceries before heading back to the beach. There, at the water’s edge, until August rolled around, their sunny days were punctuated by occasional stormy weather and the daily appearance of the cocktail flag on the wraparound porch. The current owner still hangs the flag at parties, though guests hardly need prompting.
In 2013, the owner’s brother hired Brian Felder of Felder & Associates to design and build a stunning contemporary interpretation of the raised cottage style on an adjoining lot, creating a side-by-side lesson in design evolution. Before that project concluded, the owner of the 1935 cottage hired Felder to update her home, adding a master suite and a more generous kitchen. Felder also expanded the existing full bath, enclosing a former breezeway to allow space for a marble tiled walk-in shower. The owner was adamant that the original bathtub remain as well. “You need a tub for babies,” she says.
She got her wish: the tub stayed. So did the floors (reclaimed from a Savannah match factory) and the doors, which inspired a near-perfect copy for the master suite. Since the new bedroom extended the house into the former backyard, two once-exterior windows were adapted to become bookshelves on one side and decorative elements on the other, rather than being covered in drywall.
“We treaded very lightly in the existing areas because we wanted to respect the history, which is still evident in the materials and in the room arrangement,” says architect Brian Felder. “The house was thoughtfully designed at its inception to capture breezes and light—it simply needed a few additions more in keeping with modern tastes and living.”
The vibe throughout is unfussy and lived-in—to wit, one bedroom is furnished with pieces from the current owner’s childhood home on Atlantic Avenue in Ardsley Park. Under the living room’s coffered ceiling, tucked away in a corner next to the stairs, an embroidery with additions made by six generations of the owner’s female relatives is worth more than anything in the house. “Every time there’s the threat of a storm, I drive out here and bring it back with me for safekeeping.”
With its terra-cotta floor tiles and pot rack overhead, the kitchen is the heartbeat of the cottage, all the more interesting because it’s virtually the same as the one in the owner’s other home on Jones Street, down to the hand-painted Portuguese tile backsplash. There’s a great story about that tile: after the owner’s mother brought tiles back from a trip to Lisbon, they languished in storage for decades, and by the time the owner found them, only a few remained intact. The owner was undeterred, bringing one of the few unbroken tiles on her next trip abroad. A tour guide knew a thing or two, and soon she was standing in the same atelier her mother had visited years before. She wisely over-ordered for her Jones Street rowhouse, and the leftovers ended up here. Across the kitchen, thick wood slabs mimicking the structure of the house, hold blue ceramic pots and vessels, an Italian pizzelle iron and a German spaetzle maker, artifacts of meals savored and adventures undertaken. Throughout the shifting tides of her life in this house—joy and loss, growth and change—the place itself has been the constant.
It’s almost unthinkable that the family once considered saying goodbye to all that. “When we talked about selling this house, or building something else here,” the owner says of that brief moment years ago, “I was not a happy camper.” But all’s well that ends well, and her description of what the house means to her reads like a vintage real estate developer’s credo: “This is a refuge, a getaway. There’s a continuity to that.”
Square footage: 2,892 pre-renovation; 3,576 after renovation
Number of bedrooms and
bathrooms: 5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms
Time to complete renovation/remodel: 1 year
Architects/planners: Brian Felder and Associates and Gretchen Callejas, project manager
Interior designer: Joan Levy
Contractor/builder: Tony Reardon
Tile/flooring: Mike Adams
Paint/Wallpaper: Sharpe Painting
Windows/doors: Guerry Lumber and Gray
Landscape/hardscape design: Joan Levy
Electrician: Maxwell Electric
Carpenter: Ronnie Morgan and Trim Masters of the Low Country
Plumber: Gary McBride Plumbing
HVAC: Dean Custom Air