English Regency architecture meets Southern sensibility in a meticulous restoration
A bird assembles its nest piece by piece from found objects. So, too, did Litchfield Carpenter and Washington Dender as they worked on their Gordon Street rowhouse in the downtown Historic District.
From the outside, little distinguishes the home from its neighbors — aside from a bird-festooned iron gate leading to the ground-level garden apartment. In fact, this home’s classic look is part of what initially caught the homeowners’ eyes.
Their first glimpse of it was in 1999, on a magazine page advertising historic properties for sale. The home, built in 1854, was listed as part of the “largest intact row in Savannah’s historic district.” At the time, the four-story rowhouse and accompanying carriage house were divided into five apartments.
“I look at real estate pictures everywhere I go,” says Carpenter, who, along with Dender, is based in Atlanta (the couple plans to retire in Savannah). “I thought this property would be a fun one to go see: They didn’t change anything around to make it into apartments, and that was one thing that Wash and I both really liked. The floors were all original, the windows were still old and rickety, the staircase was still intact,” he says. “It just had a good feel.”
They purchased the home with a five-year plan to renovate and restore it to its original single-family home design, but it was actually about 16 years before they could bring their ideas to fruition. They started working with Homeline Architecture on the plans around 2014. Carroll Construction started on the project work in 2015, and the teams continued nonstop for the next year and a half. Most of the home’s layout stands just as it did when it was built, but John Deering of Homeline Architecture designed a three-story rear addition that allowed space for back porches, a laundry area and a master bath.
The vibe of the home, which Carpenter and Dender call “the bird’s nest,” melds family-minded collections with the building’s innate charm. Each room retains its original coal-burning fireplace and mantle, and throughout the home, meaningful heirlooms abound. One guest room is home to an antique wooden bed passed down by a great-grandmother in Kentucky, while in the dining room, china hand-painted by Dender’s mother is illuminated by a chandelier from Carpenter’s sister.
Both homeowners enjoy entertaining, and Josh Bull of Homeline Architecture aimed to create a kitchen space that effortlessly blends their contemporary needs with the traditional elements of the home’s aesthetic. The stove hood is recessed, as though set into a fireplace, the way it might be in an English kitchen. In lieu of modern overhead lighting, Bull installed repurposed ship spotlights. And don’t forget to look up: a room off the kitchen features restored plaster ceilings, hand-built by David Hunter of Corbel Plastering.
Whereas contemporary plasterwork is often fabricated in sections off-site, Hunter built scaffolding inside the home and applied wet plaster directly to the ceiling. He also recreated plaster medallions around the light fixtures and restored a decorative plaster archway.
“It’s a very labor-intensive process built up layer by layer,” Dender explains. “It appealed to us because it was exactly the old way of doing it. We were darn lucky to find somebody to do it that way.”
That reverence for time-honored techniques and traditions carries over into the third-floor master living area, where passing through the double doors from a sitting area into the bedroom feels a bit like time travel — with the exception of a thermostat, not a single newfangled detail exists. In fact, much of the inspiration for this entire project came from Savannah’s history and local architecture. The garden apartment’s iron front gate was crafted by premier contemporary metalsmith John Boyd Smith, whose ironwork is featured throughout Savannah’s historic district. The slate flooring in the apartment was inspired by both the Owens-Thomas House and the cobblestone of Savannah’s oldest streets.
Accolades came pouring in when Historic Savannah Foundation recognized Carroll Construction with a preservation award for its work on the property earlier this year, but an equally precious prize sits inside Carpenter’s and Dender’s china cabinet. While excavating out back to build the courtyard, the builders discovered what seemed to be the home’s original cistern, with a hidden gem inside: a simple, white ironstone creamer. It’s an emblem of a job well done and a long-held dream come to fruition — in short, the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new and beautiful one.
Owners: Litchfield Carpenter and Washington Dender
Year built: 1853
Year purchased: 1999
Square footage: 4,300
Number of bedrooms and bathrooms: 5 bedrooms, 5.5 baths
Time to complete renovation/remodel: 14 months
Architects/planners: John Deering and Josh Bull of Homeline Architecture
Interior design: By owners
Contractor/builder: Carroll Construction
Tile/flooring: Davis Hardwood Flooring for wood floor restoration; M.T. Adams Tile & Stone for ceramic and stone tile installation
Paint/wallpaper: Vince Csatajszki
Windows/doors: Home South Architectural, Guerry Lumber
Kitchen design: Homeline Architecture
Custom cabinetry: John and Susan Thompson, Kitchen Living in Tryon, North Carolina
Custom kitchen hood: Jeff Wozniak, Forsyth Metal Works
Bath design: Homeline Architecture
Lighting design: Homeline Architecture
Landscape design: John McEllen
Hardscape design: John McEllen
Electrician: Braddy Electric
Plumber: Jake Patrick & Son Plumbing
Plaster renovation: David Hunter, Corbel Plastering
Landscaper: John McEllen, Ben Baxter
HVAC: Arctic Air Heating & Cooling
Furniture, art and accessories: By owners
Appliances: Livingoods Appliances and Bedding
Custom garden-level entry gate: John Boyd Smith and Aaron Matthews, Roebuck, South Carolina
*all resources supplied by homeowners