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High Style on the Battery

High Style on the Battery
March 2018

On the tip of the peninsula, Molly and Ted Fienning’s haute home embraces their love of clean-lined modernity while paying homage to the neighborhood’s historical aesthetic

It’s hard to say which provides a better view: Charleston Harbor or the homes that preside over it. On any given day, a steady stream of locals and tourists alike can be found strolling along the tip of the peninsula, admiring the coastal panorama to the south and the parade of cornice-, column-, and veranda-festooned properties to the north. So when Molly and Ted Fienning bought a rare empty lot on Murray Boulevard with the aim of building a new home for their young family, they knew that in terms of architectural design, the bar was sky-high.

The duo and their kiddos—Sawyer, six, and Fox, two—landed in the Holy City in 2013 after Ted, a Sumter native and Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter pilot, left active duty. (He’s still plenty active, though, serving in the Marine Corps Reserve and working in The Citadel’s Krause Center for Leadership & Ethics.) “Charleston has always held a place in my imagination,” Ted says. And, after turns in D.C. and rural Mississippi, the family felt they’d found their sweet spot: “Charleston is the perfect mix of a dynamic, progressive city for me and South Carolina’s lifestyle and roots for Ted,” Molly notes.

Given their love of downtown, the couple originally planned to restore a historical home, but while renting South of Broad, realized the proportions commonly found in older homes just weren’t the right fit. “We wanted a very open ground floor to maximize light, flow, and the ability to have lots of friends and family over,” Molly explains.

One evening, while walking by the water, a “For Sale” sign on a lot overlooking the harbor sparked an epiphany: Why not build from the ground up in the neighborhood they’d come to love? Although Murray Boulevard from Tradd Street to South Battery wasn’t developed until 1911, the couple wanted their new abode’s design to respect the South of Broad historical aesthetic. Yet Molly, a born-and-bred New Yorker, also craved a loft-like space that felt fresh and modern.

Melding such seemingly opposing design goals sounds like a tall order, but it was the perfect challenge for these two: as the co-founders of Babiators, a line of fashion-forward but super-durable sunglasses for kids carried by national retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, as well as local shops Sugar Snap Pea and Wonder Works, the Fiennings are practiced at blending classic style and modern functionality.

They found a kindred spirit in architect Heather Wilson, known for her clean-lined yet traditional designs that fall under the “modern farmhouse” umbrella. After soliciting feedback from their soon-to-be neighbors (over cocktails and pimiento cheese, of course) and the city’s stringent Board of Architectural Review, Wilson and the Fiennings landed on a unique U-shaped design that checked all the right boxes and turned to builder Brett Elrod, of C.B. Elrod Co., to bring it to fruition.

With its double verandas, graceful symmetry, and elevated grand entrance, the painted-brick façade is a tip of the hat to the older homes that populate much of the neighborhood. “But it’s a more minimal aesthetic,” notes Molly. “We forewent traditional shutters and painted the window mullions and doors dark to strike that balance.”

“Murray Boulevard itself is not historic, so I felt we had more freedom to play with the design,” says Wilson. “While the pitches of roofs, the scale, and the double porches are steeped in regional vernacular, the details take on a clean and slightly more modern effect.”

Those modern elements—such as the tiered metal roof and graphic black-and-white color palette—become more apparent when viewed from the eastern side of the 4,200-square-foot home. Also, from this angle, its shape comes into sharper focus. “I asked Heather to maximize light and water views, which led us to the long ‘U’ shape instead of a more traditional rectangle,” Molly says. “Nearly every room in the house can see the tides change and boats traveling along the Ashley River.”

Inside, the mix of old school and au courant continues. The Fiennings tapped Sullivan’s Island-based design pro Cortney Bishop to oversee the interiors. “I was excited to interpret this young family with ties to New York moving South of Broad,” Bishop says.

The designer kicked things off by curating a palette of timeless, high-quality finishes and materials to use throughout the space. Wide-plank French oak flooring, plaster walls courtesy of craftspeople from the American College of the Building Arts, shiplap, and two paint colors—a custom shade of white and “Wrought Iron” by Benjamin Moore—are all classic enough to stand up to the home’s formal façade.

From there, Bishop layered in furnishings and decor that reflect the Fiennings’ playful nature. Wilson punctuated the connected, open-concept family and dining rooms with dueling fireplaces; Bishop riffed on this symmetry with twin “Cloud” chandeliers by Apparatus, matching geometric rugs by Merida, and complementary large-scale abstract works by North Carolina artist Brian Coleman. “The matching rugs and light fixtures and the similarity of the Coleman paintings all have a serenity that pays homage to the architecture,” Bishop notes. Both rooms also feature sculptural furnishings (such as Kelly Wearstler dining chairs and a wing chair in the manner of Hans Wegner) that resemble works of art.

Still, the space is comfortable enough for family living. A recent afternoon found Sawyer plopped on the couch, deeply engrossed in The Boxcar Children—one of Molly’s favorite book series from childhood. In the evenings, this spot is the backdrop of many a dance party, complete with disco lights. “Everyone takes turns playing his or her favorite songs: something by Imagine Dragons for Sawyer, “Cha Cha Slide” for Fox, The Who for Ted, and Rihanna for me,” Molly says.

Even the textiles have a sense of humor: in the playroom, pillows in “Pow” fabric by Kate Loudoun Shand reference comic-book art; in the powder room, a modern toile wallpaper by Rifle Paper Co. for Hygge & West features illustrations of the wonders of the world. “Certain locales have significant meaning to our family already, and I love how the boys can learn about the others as they grow,” Molly explains.

The kitchen provides another haute but highly livable space. Built-in banquettes and Verellen chairs covered in a punchy Peter Dunham fabric offer ample seating around a concrete-topped table, where Molly perches to do Babiators work; the children tackle art projects; and post-kids’ bedtime, husband and wife enjoy glasses of wine. “This is one of my favorite nooks in the house, and we spend the majority of our time here,” Molly says.

The lady of the house sums it up best: “It’s formal enough for the location, strong enough to withstand two young boys, and inviting for guests and friends.”