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A Twist on Tradition

A Twist on Tradition
February 2020

A dynamic mother-daughter design team breathes new life into a circa-1840 Charleston single house

When Betsy Finley initially stepped inside the three-story manse on Wentworth Street, it was hardly love at first sight. “The property needed a lot of work,” she says bluntly. “The garden was terrible, the kitchen was tiny, and there were no closets.” These flaws were deal breakers for the New York native, who was retiring to Charleston with her husband, Bruce, to be close to their youngest daughter, Daisy. “The problem wasn’t that the house wasn’t great,” she explains. “It was making the commitment to do another huge renovation.”

Having built, remodeled, and renovated six homes—including a Manhattan brownstone; an 18th-century farm house in Old Greenwich, Connecticut; and a modern home in Naples, Florida—the Finleys weren’t keen on another big project, so they kept looking. But the nearly two-centuries-old Greek Revival in Ansonborough lingered in their imaginations. “It had such amazing bones, plus high ceilings and a spacious garden,” says Daisy, age 27, who helped her parents with their extended search. Eventually the couple relented, purchasing the home in 2017 and undertaking a yearlong renovation.

Despite the less-than-ideal start, Betsy and Bruce now fully embrace the four-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot historical residence. “We love it,” she says emphatically. “We had a lot of fun renovating. Sure, the process was hard, but now I can look back on it with happiness.” Part of that joy comes from the opportunity to work with her daughter on the project.

Though both are in the interior design realm—Betsy had her own firm in New York City and Greenwich, and Daisy is the manager/buyer of Charleston-based interior design collective Fritz Porter—this was the pair’s first collaboration. “The house really is a story of the two of us,” Betsy says. “It’s the first time we’ve had the chance to work on something together.” While the family has lived in many “spectacular houses,” says Bruce, “I think this is the nicest one we’ve ever had. The ladies just did an amazing job.”

“I didn’t want to go totally traditional Charleston; I wanted it to be a little edgy, but still have the nod to the old world,” says Betsy. Decor flourishes would come later; first they had to tackle the limitations of Charleston single houses, which were designed for a different way of life. With a layout that’s one room wide with a central hallway and staircase, singles traditionally feature separate and formal dining and receiving rooms downstairs, not to mention the former deal breaker: no closets. “To find ways to modernize the spaces and fix the storage issues, you’ve got to be clever, and respectful,” Betsy says.

For the Finleys, this meant converting the largest room in the house, the formal dining room, into an open-plan kitchen. The narrow “hyphen”—a room added to many older homes to connect the kitchen house with the main structure—became a bar/lounge (it was previously a small galley kitchen). The formal sitting room at the front of the house turned into an informal space for dining and visiting by the fire. “It was a huge job moving all the plumbing and adding the cabinetry to create a new kitchen,” Betsy says. “But we hired an amazing builder who guided us through it all.”

Archer Construction helped subtly reshape the historical structure to their needs, without overstepping any existing easements on the Carolopolis-awarded home. They retained everything original to the house—with the exception of one fireplace that made way for a Wolf induction stove—and exposed the home’s original wooden beams and brick walls, which had been covered by plaster over the decades.

Other minor reconfigurations created much needed storage space, including building copious cabinetry in the kitchen and removing a window and exterior door in the master bathroom to create a dressing room, closet, and walk-in shower. Steel-framed glass doors replaced windows in the “hyphen” and the kitchen house—now a cozy sitting room and guest suite—to encourage an indoor-outdoor flow and fully take advantage of the piazza and patio.

The result is a chic, contemporary take on traditional Charleston. Striking, dark paint colors and bold, patterned wallpaper create interest in the halls and bathrooms, while grays and whites mix with brick and wood in the kitchen and sitting rooms for a more soothing experience. Throughout the home, vibrant paintings, sculptures, and furnishings, largely sourced from Fritz Porter, draw the eye. The overall effect is a rejection of the trend towards sparse simplicity in favor of fuller, more decadent decor.

It’s also uniquely Betsy. Every room is adorned with her artwork, including a raku pottery skull sculpture, an elegant painting of an egret, and a prominently placed electrical panel that Betsy ingeniously painted as an abstract work. “It’s totally my mom’s personality,” says Daisy. “A lot of fun, very creative, and completely one-of-a-kind, just like her.”

Outside, landscape architect Glen R. Gardner transformed the overgrown garden into delightful spaces for relaxing and entertaining. Four newly planted, 30-foot-tall palm trees watch over an outdoor dining area and a cozy fire pit, while the boughs of a tall magnolia drape over a putting green and new garden shed. But the pièce de résistance is the outdoor kitchen, which features a pizza oven with a counter, perfect for both prepping and dining alfresco. “We’ve had a lot of laughs and a lot of frustration with it,” says Daisy, of the oven. “It turns out it’s not that easy to make the perfect pizza.”

Whether cooking with their daughter in their dream kitchen or heading out to their favorite seafood haunt, 167 Raw, just a few blocks away, the Finleys fully appreciate their new lives in Charleston. “We work out, play golf, attend lectures and concerts, and eat out way too often!” says Betsy, but hanging out at home tops their list. When asked if she would change anything on her last big project, she replies with a satisfied smile, “Not a thing!”