The City Magazine Since 1975

Cocktails & Chinoiserie

Cocktails & Chinoiserie
WRITER: 
PHOTOGRAPHER: 
January 2019

After a military career that took them around the world, Dr. Melvin and Deborah Brown return home, regularly hosting friends in their circa-1919 residence in Hampton Park Terrace, filled with treasures from near and far



ARTS & CRAFTS: The Browns’ century-old Craftsman-style residence is a mail-order “kit” house—similar to those popularly sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. between 1908 and 1940 for homeowners to construct themselves, every piece marked and numbered. An addition, to the left of the entry, was built by a previous owner. (Inset) Debbie and Melvin in the formal dining room.

From the outside, the wood-framed house is pure Craftsman design, but on the inside, there’s not a stick of Mission-style Stickley furniture anywhere. Instead, this circa-1919 catalog “kit” house (similar to those popularly sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co.) is punctuated by the eclectic collections of its well-traveled owners, Deborah and Dr. W. Melvin Brown III.

Melvin grew up nearby on Parkwood Street. “You could almost see it from here if it weren’t for the trees,” he says of his childhood home in Hampton Park Terrace, the 107-year-old Charleston neighborhood (bordered by Hampton Park, The Citadel, and Rutledge Avenue) that’s on the National Registry of Historic Places.

A nurse-turned-antiques dealer, Debbie brought many items back from their years spent in Asia, Virginia, and Florida while her husband served as a doctor in the US Navy. Now retired from military service, he’s an emergency room physician at Trident Medical Center and on the Board of Trustees at MUSC, and the couple is known to host terrific dinner parties, with Melvin typically taking charge of cooking and cocktails.

“You either turn left for the kitchen and family room, or turn right for the rooms for entertaining,” Debbie says while leading the way from the entry hall. The home is effortlessly interesting and welcoming, like Debbie herself, who’s wearing a soft gray sweater and blue jeans, with bangle bracelets and rings set with baubles as big as pecans.

Our first stop—after grabbing cups of coffee in the kitchen—is an enclosed, original porch wrapped with windows, its ceiling covered in white-painted beadboard and a corner filled with spiky palms and other sun-loving plants. “We call it the ‘Florida room,’” she says, explaining that everyone had such sun-rooms when the family lived in Jacksonville. Daylight pours in all year, filtered softly by woven roman shades. It’s where, she notes, she and Melvin often steal away in the evenings for conversations and cocktails from the vintage brass bar cart. Or they’ll read and relax on the circa-1960s Ficks Reed rattan furniture with freshly upholstered cushions in botanical patterns. Nearby, oversized wooden bowls are filled with sea shells collected in Japan.

“There’s not a single thing in this house that I bought brand new,” Debbie says. “I like things that have been around.” In fact, most of the items in the Browns’ nearly 2,800-square-foot home have come from estate sales, antiques markets, and consignment shops or have been handed down by family, according to Debbie, who describes her style as “acquired, not decorated.”

Debbie credits her father, Herbert Rivers, an Air Force veteran from Jasper County who met and married her mother, Eiko, when he was stationed in Japan, for showing her the art of attaching significance to things. “He would tell me the story behind a family heirloom, or even a rock that he’d saved.” Perhaps because of him, she began collecting natural items like cicada shells as a young girl, which led to handbags as well as fine and costume jewelry as a young woman. These days, Debbie—whose apt Instagram handle is “fiercehuntswoman”—channels her passion into a business, partnering with longtime local antiques dealer Susan Bianucci in booths at Antiques of South Windermere.

Nearby, in the coolly sophisticated parlor, a long, green velvet couch provides the perfect perch for taking in the mélange of objets d’art, including African masks; Buddha sculptures; and a pair of snarling, imperial Chinese lions on the mantel of the stuccoed-white fireplace. The aesthetic, Debbie says, is partly inspired by the elegant fashion sense and home decor of Melvin’s late mother, Juanita, an educator and philanthropist who “was glamorous and adored chinoiserie and African art.”

Art and design books are stacked under a large glass coffee table laden with hunks of natural crystal—ready to be inspected by guests. “The crystals are a favorite of my son,” Debbie says, of Gabriel, age 23. Their 12-year-old daughter, Lily, is drawn to the collection of boxes, especially the antique tortoiseshell one with an intricately carved dragon design that Debbie found on a trip to Beijing.

A second original fireplace—also stuccoed and painted white—is a key feature of the adjoining dining room, where neutrals and blues are the primary colors. Walls papered in a buff-colored grass cloth provide a textured backdrop to Victorian-era bird prints created with actual feathers and a pair of 19th-century “orange skin” porcelain plates (named for their texture, not color) from imperial China that are hung as indigo-blue orbs on the pale walls.

“I use a lot of blue and white in the house. The colors are a huge anchor for chinoiserie,” Debbie explains. And the flax-colored, linen gossamer curtains in the dining room were designed and made by her mother, who has owned and operated a dressmaking and alterations shop in North Charleston since the 1980s.

A butler’s pantry as roomy as a small kitchen is at the center of the house today, bridging the home’s nearly century-old section with the more recent addition of a large, open kitchen and family room. To this they’ve added their own touches, including custom cabinetry and stepped-up appliances and tools in home chef Melvin’s domain, the kitchen.

The Browns didn’t alter the house structure itself, because “it already had good bones,” Debbie says. But they did hire master brick mason Derek Holmes to create a fresh outdoor entertaining space in the form of a garden courtyard of antique brick in a herringbone pattern. Neighbors like to stop by to see Debbie’s seasonal plantings and baskets of blooms and vines. The couple also added a new, separate structure across the courtyard. Architects John Abess and Dave Shaw designed the space to function as a guesthouse, as well as a home office for Melvin. “He appreciates space and a more open, modern style,” Debbie notes, so it’s the one part of the Brown home with furnishings that evoke mid-century flair.

Back in the main house, a sous-vide preparation is underway in the kitchen. “That’s Melvin’s project,” Debbie explains, nodding at the temperature gauge. “One of our friends who’s coming over tonight is French, so he’s making bœuf bourguignon.” Debbie will soon be dressing the dining room with her distinct elegance and style, and Melvin will surely be mixing up cocktail concoctions for the guests—just another day in the Browns’ warm, inviting home.