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A Summerville couple picked up the story of a 150-year-old Italianate home where previous owners left off

A Summerville couple picked up the story of a 150-year-old Italianate home where previous owners left off
February 2023

The careful, decade-long renovation included making the most of an unusually-shaped room at the center of the house

There’s something about a house with a story to tell. For Bonny and David Ferguson, the tales hidden beneath the original heart pine floorboards, behind the pine-paneled walls installed by the home’s most famous resident, and swirling around the octagonal rotunda of the “teacherage” in Summerville’s historic district were irresistible. “We love old things,” says Bonny. “We always knew we wanted a historical home.” And perhaps the best part about buying a house with a past is the chance to add your own legacy.

For the Fergusons, the opportunity to restore the beautiful but run-down, nearly 150-year-old Italianate home was the main draw. That, and the well over one-acre lot, bordering Azalea Park and brimming with rare, old camellia bushes and azaleas, lured David, a master gardener. The couple, who both work for the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in downtown Charleston, had searched for more than two years to find the perfect project house, one that hadn’t been renovated in a way that didn’t do justice to its history. And they certainly got what they wanted. “It was kind of a mess,” admits Bonny. “The paint was crumbling, the roof was leaking, the electrical system was a nightmare.” But it had good bones. “So, that’s why we fell in love with it,” says David.

Built in 1877 by the Rhett family, the one-story home’s 14-foot ceilings, unusual layout, and dramatic central octagonal room with a medallion skylight pretty much guaranteed it would have an intriguing history. In 1944, the Summerville School District purchased it to board teachers working at what was then Summerville High School. Ten years later, the house was sold to author and former diplomat Paul Hyde Bonner, who wrote several of his novels there. “I’ve read Aged in the Woods, and I can almost feel which rooms he wrote certain pieces in,” says David.

After a few decades under the ownership of the Berry family, who connected the separate kitchen house to expand the home’s floor plan, the Town of Summerville bought it in the early 2000s with plans to create an event venue. Ten years and minimal maintenance later, Bonny and David came along and have spent the past decade slowly restoring the property to its former glory.

ANTIQUE ALLURE: Ralph filled one area of the rotunda with a custom sofa surrounded by two Regency armchairs and a coffee table from Terrace Oaks antiques. Two pillows covered in a gold Fortuny fabric provide a pop of color while two neoclassical floor lamps from Well Furnished and a pair of double wall sconces from Urban Archaeology in the Federalist style add light to the previously dark room.

The couple, who met in Greenville and moved to Summerville in 1994, started with the necessary structural work—which took about eight months and included all new plumbing and electrical, as well as a standing seam, hand-turned metal roof to bring the home back to its original profile.

Over time, they worked at making the house more functional for a modern family. “We needed a laundry room and were closet anemic in an old house,” notes Bonny. So, they reconfigured a small octagonal sitting room off the primary bedroom into a walk-in closet and expanded a tiny toilet room into a hallway to fashion the bathroom suite/laundry room. “We quickly learned that we had to be creative,” says David.

For budget reasons, the couple decided to wait before tackling the kitchen, which had last been updated circa 1950. “One of the good things about waiting is that the house will talk to you, if you listen,” says David. “Some of our original plans when we first moved in went away after living there for a couple of years.”

There was also the question of the central octagonal room, with its 18-foot ceilings and original crown molding. A truly spectacular centerpiece, the rotunda was a challenge to furnish and to identify its best use. Originally, it would have served as a common area/dining room, but thanks to the 1930s addition, a newer dining room connects to the kitchen. This left the Fergusons with a quandary: what to do with the rotunda?

They enlisted Charleston-based designer Alaina Michelle Ralph to address the home’s challenges. “When Bonny first called me, she said, ‘I have this strange room in the middle of my house that I don’t know what to do with,’” recalls Ralph. “I met with her and was blown away by the house and could see the potential of the room.” But it was painted a dark gray, she says, and with no lighting in there, it was “really grim.”

To define this unusual space while maintaining harmony with the rest of the home, Ralph selected an Iksel scenic wallpaper to add color and some drama. Its depiction of the Italian countryside ties into the home’s Italianate architectural style, a popular one when the house was originally built. Federal-style Urban Archaeology wall sconces brighten the room without detracting from the wallpaper, and a cream-colored antique sofa fits perfectly in a nook opposite the fireplace.

The designer also added two antique chairs and a low coffee table to create a welcoming sitting area. A round mahogany table in the middle provides a focal point, and two wingback chairs flank the fireplace, which is topped with a gold mirror to help reflect more light into the room. A large white area rug ties everything together. The result is a light, welcoming space that feels both fresh and historically authentic.

FINE DINING: The rotunda opens into the dining room, a later addition, which itself leads to the renovated kitchen. Ralph opened up these rooms to create one continuous space. She kept the original basket-weave parquet floors, continuing them into the kitchen to tie the rooms together. She also updated the window trim work to better match the original architectural details and added an ornate chandelier from David Skinner Antiques above the dining table. The antique sideboard holds two urn lamps from Wynsum Antiques & Interiors; a Grecian figure below a convex mirror from Well Furnished adds a touch of whimsy to the scene.

To help restore the symmetry of the original house, Ralph worked with Mike Taylor of Taylor Coastal Construction to open up the kitchen and dining room and make them feel like a continuation of the historic space. She pulled colors from the rotunda wallpaper to inform the paint selections in those rooms, as well as the entry hall on the opposite side. Now, when visitors enter, they can see through the rotunda all the way to the back of the home, the color palette helping to strengthen the connection between the rooms.

In the kitchen, the team undertook a complete renovation, adding more cabinets to take advantage of the high ceilings and rearranging the layout to accommodate paneled Thermador appliances and a vintage Winn Dixie butcher-block table, which creates more work space and adds a touch of old-world charm.

Throughout the house, Ralph worked with the Fergusons’ collection of antique furniture and collectibles, weaving in some new-to-them Regency pieces to align with the home’s age. The result is a timeless, cohesive design that feels like it has evolved naturally over the years and through the stories of its many owners. “Alaina’s ideas made our house beautiful,” says Bonny. “And our things and the history, and the way we feel about it all, make it a home.”