A Savannah businesswoman teams with local designers to transform her tiny cottage into a high-end getaway. By Kim Wade. Photography by Richard Leo Johnson.
Jennifer Abshire opens the door of her newly purchased Jones Street cottage to reveal an empty, gray-walled living area that smells like sawdust. I see a blank canvas. She sees a promising investment.
Jennifer, the CEO and founder of Abshire Public Relations, is about to turn this 145-year-old, structurally sound cottage into a high-end vacation rental property.
“It’s amazing to know that this house was originally built (in 1868) as temporary housing for CSX railroad workers,” the Savannah socialite says. “Now it’s being used as temporary housing for travelers again. I guess this house knows its purpose to the city.”
I ask Jennifer why she wanted to buy a house, fix it up and rent it out to strangers.
“When I travel, I love to stay at places that are VRBO— Vacation Rental By Owner—because it gives me a chance to stay in someone’s home and feel like a local,” she explains, then adds that her son, Phillip, is a freshman at The Citadel and her daughter, Reilly, is a freshman at Savannah Christian Prep School. “Paying out-of-state tuition was a shock to me. I needed extra income.”
Rather than focus on an emptying nest, Jennifer put her energy into extending her nest egg.
“I wanted to find a great investment to extend my savings and I stumbled into this venture,” she continues.
Jennifer ran into her friend, Corey Jones, who told her about his new vacation property rental company, Lucky Savannah Rentals. Letting Corey manage the rental details would make her investment that much easier.
Next, she hired Ruel Joyner, the owner of 24e Design Co., and his head designer, Johnathan “Darcy” Darcy, to transform her petite 700-square-foot cottage into a big asset.
When Ruel and Darcy meet us at the cottage, their excitement for the plans are contagious. Jennifer beams as they discuss color palettes and furniture options.
To Protect and Preserve
First, Ruel wants me to know what he’s not doing. This is a décor job, not a full-scale remodel.
“We don’t want to destroy the original features of the cottage, like the plaster walls and handmade door frames,” Ruel explains. “We want to make a perfect blend of traditional with modern but still keep it functional.”
The only structural changes will consist of refurbishing the heart pine floors, knocking out a wall to make a large master bedroom area and adding blue slate flooring to the kitchen to replace worn linoleum.
Ruel is tasked with the overall concept, but Darcy takes charge of the design details. His goal is to make the small home at once beautiful and functional. He tells me he will achieve this design dichotomy by adding simple fabrics, timeless prints and reclaimed wood pieces.
“The great thing about reclaimed wood is that it looks better with wear and tear,” he explains. “The bumps and scratches add character and beauty to the piece.”
The design team has chosen colors and objects that emphasize the nautical and railroad history associated with the neighborhood. The palette mixes light ocean blues and creamy hues with sharp cerulean and citrus accents. Ruel also has collected and retrofitted original bulkhead lights from old ships, along with other local antiques.
Design Within Scale
Of course, the size of the cottage will dictate many of the decisions, spurring the design team to manage the floor plan very carefully.
“Just because we are working with a small space doesn’t mean we try to fill it with tiny furniture,” Ruel says. “Every inch of space needs to have meaning and comfort.”
Darcy shows me plans to minimize clutter by hanging globe pendant lights above the nightstands in the master bedroom instead of lamps. This will allow for more usable space on the tables.
Similarly, Darcy intends to remove the original bedroom doors to add space. He shows me his designs for sliding, wooden railroad-cart doors—a nod to the home’s former purpose—that will be manufactured onsite.
Next, he lays out a sample of the special-order seagrass wallpaper from Phillip Jeffries.
“We want to bring in natural elements like this wallpaper, bamboo Roman shades and cowhide rugs to juxtapose with the modern fabrics,” Darcy explains.
He also wants to use simple shapes in his designs. Circles appear to be a big theme—from the round pedestal tables (fewer potentially painful corners in the small space) and the circle-print rugs, armchairs and wallpaper to the wooden drum chandelier for the kitchen.
It’s time for them to get to work and for me to get out of their way. Inspired by the mood boards, fabric swatches and designs, I can hardly wait to see the final product.
The Best-laid Plans
Almost two months after my first visit, I arrive at the cottage expecting to see the finish product as planned.
A man wearing paint-splattered clothes and a tool belt walks out the open front door. He passes me, carrying a circular saw and drenched with sweat.
Ruel greets me at the door. He tries to mask his obvious frustration with a smile and we both laugh when I look around the empty room.
Finally, Ruel throws his hands in the air.
“We’ve had a few setbacks,” he laments.
Ruel admits that his insistence on not “bastardizing” the original plaster walls has caused the delay. The special-order wallpaper won’t lie flat because the walls are too uneven. Instead, he’s going to have to apply a Venetian plaster finish in the bedrooms and paint the walls in the kitchen.
“This is what happens when you work with an old house,” Ruel shrugs. “Over time, things have settled and moved. Most people would just tear out these walls and throw up sheetrock, but we’re determined to keep the original structure.”
I scan the guest room and notice the subtle slanting and gaps around the doorways and window frames. I have a new appreciation for historic preservation.
When Ruel insists everything will be done in 48 hours, I give him a high five and wish him luck.
Miracle on Jones Street
Two days later, I’m back. The front porch is draped with a colorful assortment of fresh spring flowers, courtesy of Jennifer’s beau, Savannah florist John Davis.
Jennifer opens the front door to greet me, revealing the open living and dining area. My eyes are immediately drawn to the right, where an overstuffed, ultra-suede sea- foam sofa hugs the wall beside the original fireplace. Dual diamond-shaped footstools rest on the floor and the scent of more fresh flowers masks fresh paint fumes.
I’m amazed by the transformation of the living room and the way the full-sized furnishings fit perfectly into the small space without overwhelming it. Jennifer is more amazed that everything stayed exactly on budget.
To the right just inside the entrance, an Edinburgh chair rests beside a ceiling-height walnut bookcase with round-cornered shelves. To give the space a warm, welcoming ambience, Jennifer has filled the shelves with Savannah travel guides, bulkhead lights from 24e, personal photographs and a wooden chest her grandfather made for her.
“I wanted to add in personal items that had a ‘traveler’ feel to them,” she explains.
A 32-inch flat-screen television is mounted on the opposite wall just above a reclaimed wood chest. The linen-tone sea grass wallcovering adds a rustic touch and some sound control to the living space.
At the far end of the main room, a cream-colored, circular pedestal table is flanked by four Louis-style ghost chairs. A brilliant white drum chandelier lights the area. A painting by local artist Marcus Kenney and floating photographs of the Coastal Empire by Tiffany Yarborough lend vibrant color to the peaceful space and add the touch of Savannah art Jennifer wanted to showcase.
Jennifer rolls back the black railroad-cart door on the left wall, revealing the guest bedroom, its twin beds adorned with teal fabric headboards and separated by an oversized dressing table made from reclaimed wood. The walls are painted in alternating shades of antique gold and white, giving the appearance of a birch bark backdrop. Pops of goldenrod burst from the simple block-print bedspreads and from the contemporary wool throw rug.
“This is my favorite room,” Jennifer says. She points out an aerial color photograph of historic downtown that fills one side of the wall opposite the beds.
“I just popped into Photo Master for passport photos and found this,” she tells me.
An antique pull-down map of the United States doubles as a window shade. Bamboo Roman shades cover another window behind the dressing table. The subdued sunlight reflects off a small color photo of Jennifer and her children perched on the table.
“I wanted this to feel like a home,” she explains.
To the right of the guest room, Jennifer rolls open another set of ebonized cart doors to reveal an office area that is connected to the master sleeping quarters.
Opposite the entrance, a desk made of reclaimed wood is paired with a cozy armchair covered in a cream, citron and gray geometric pattern. A cowhide rug rests on the floor.
The room contains no closets, so Ruel and Darcy have brought in an oversized wood cabinet with glass doors that doubles as storage and a sound buffer.
“This room can be used as either a dressing area or work space,” Jennifer explains.
To our right rests the luxurious sleeping area, replete with a queen bed outfitted with Missoni bedding accented with nautical blues. The white ostrich-leather headboard and the subtle shimmer of the light blue and silver wallpaper add a modern touch.
Each side of the bed is flanked with chestnut dressing tables designed to provide extra storage for traveling guests.
The master bedroom opens into a short hallway that leads to the bathroom, kitchen and back yard. Fresh paint and flooring have given the small bathroom and kitchen a new lease on life. Repurposed cabinetry, some of it original to the house, provides additional storage for homey amenities, such as spa robes and a first-aid kit.
In the kitchen, the blue slate floors and mustard yellow walls embrace a sitting area comprised of two blue velvet antique armchairs and a small, rounded pedestal table. I look up and see a circular drum chandelier from 24e, which evokes the cozy feel of a small diner.
“Can’t you imagine people sitting here for cocktails before going out to explore the city?” Jennifer asks me.
The back door of the kitchen leads to the outdoor patio area, where oversized pots of fresh hydrangeas from John Davis pair perfectly with freshly planted camellias and knockout roses. A container garden from Lucky Savannah Vacation Rentals completes the picture, and a handful of mix-and-match furnishings create a second, alfresco dining space.
I look around the lush garden and listen to the sounds of random cars rumbling over the uneven bricks on Jones Street. The blank canvas is gone and Jennifer’s vision of a Savannah-style retreat has arrived.