The City Magazine Since 1975

Soul Cottage

Soul Cottage
April 2013
Leila and Buff Ross transform his childhood home on Sullivan's into an artful melding of past and present  

Leila Davenport Ross isn’t a big fan of the word—maybe it’s the overuse that dulls it, the way it’s tossed into design speak when no other words fit. And who could blame her? The term is affixed to both the mismatched and the oddly extraordinary, the storied anthologies and collections that are just that, plain and simple.

But here in her husband Buff’s childhood home, just blocks from the Sullivan’s Island shore, eclectic doesn’t just fit. It weaves its way through the old home’s history and back through two Southern families, melds its owners’ delightfully disparate art and artifacts, and marries creaky furnishings steeped in ancestry with lively lighting and rugs that glow all modern. An installation of wooden coffee stirrers—of all things—by College of Charleston grad Jonathan Brilliant curving its way along the bathroom wall? You find things like that here.

“Buff jokes that we’re ‘maximalists’,” laughs Leila. “We’ll be stark minimalists in our next lifetime, but this time around, we’re people who collect objects, who develop deep emotional connections to things. Old dusty books, ostrich eggs, art—people come over and say, ‘It’s like a museum. There’s so much to see, so much to look at.’ And I like that. We’re telling our story.”

Rightly, it starts at the front door, which came directly from the old Sappho Ferry that ran from the peninsula to the Old Village and Sullivan’s Island beginning in the late 1700s. When it went out of service in the early 20th century, the original builders of the Ross home used the doors and pocket windows from the ferry. “The front door is from the hull,” says Leila, noting how it sits at a quirky, “Dr. Suess angle.” The old windows went in, too, and operate on a weighted pulley—sliding down instead of up. “When you look at old photos of the ferry, you can see that the doors and
windows are the same.”

Buff’s family bought the home in 1974, when he was just five. “His mother, Rose Mitchell, was a potter and had a studio on the ground floor,” explains Leila. “She had this great artistic energy, it just flowed through the house.” The vibe snagged Buff, too—in fact, he was working alongside Mark Sloan at the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and gearing up for a master’s program in museum studies when he met Leila, who’d moved to Charleston from New Orleans. She grew up in the tiny farming town of Mer Rouge in northern Louisiana.

“It was a crazy small-world connection,” says Leila. Buff’s grandparents lived just seven miles down the road from where she grew up. “Our paternal grandparents were dear friends in the 1940s and ’50s. When I was a child, I met his parents, his great aunt, but never him,” she continues. Until he happened to wait on her table at Atlanticville on Sullivan’s—they recognized each others’ names and started sifting through their intertwining families, as well as art scene threads (Leila had worked in galleries in the Big Easy).

The two married three years later and set up house downtown on Ashley Avenue. But not long after that—and rather unexpectedly—Buff’s mother died. “Suddenly,” says Leila, “his childhood home just fell into our laps—this magical place, with all of Rose’s lovely energy and vibe, was bestowed on us.”

Leila and Buff moved in two weeks before their second son, Barlow, was born. He’s four now, and his older brother, Jack, eight. Much remains as it was—the boys race the same halls and eat in the same quirky ’70s-era breakfast booth as their father did. Structural updates were minor—replacing beadboard, updating bathrooms, and for the first time in the home’s 100-plus-year history, sending central heat and air blowing through the place—not the kind of things that shift an old home’s character. “We needed to modernize some aspects but retain the architectural integrity of the place.”

What has changed, and evolve a little more every day, are the carefully curated pieces that fill the old cottage. Leila and Buff  (who now co-own Alloneword Design, a local web design firm) are all too happy to blend a “wacky red chandelier made of coconut shell” with oil portraits and landscapes by his grandmother and a handful of 19th-century artists; an unconventional tea bag art piece by former CofC student Adrienne Antonson with a 17th-century inlaid walnut chest inherited from Leila’s uncle. “One day, I’m into ethnic textiles, the next I’m bringing home a piece of graffiti art,” she says. “I think it’s fun to blend decorative styles without fitting into one design mold.”

And then there’s the organic elements, the myriad bones and shell collections, seed pods, air plants, and ostrich eggs dotting shelves and cabinets. She laughs: “Growing up on a farm, I was never far from ‘dead things’—bones that I found to be really sculptural and lovely.” She nods to a glass-encased coffee table she’s had since grad school that’s morphed into a museum-like cabinet of curiosities. “My favorite is the stuffed alligator garfish—it’s a bizarre, Paleolithic-looking creature you’d find in the murky, swampy waters back home,” she says. “After I shared a funny dream I had about one, Buff found this in Boneroom, a store in Berkeley, California. It’s lived in that table ever since.”

Upstairs, in the sole second-floor room that serves as the master bedroom, Leila sought to streamline this “wildly vacillating eclecticism” and asked friend and interior designer Angie Hranowsky to help. “I wanted something more modern, with an ethnic feel to it. I knew hands-down Angie could do it.”

The two started with a Moroccan tribal rug Leila had—“this was like starting with a fabulous pair of shoes, it was the major piece we built the room around,” says Leila. They added a four-poster, distressed wood bed from Anthropologie; a sculptural light fixture made from natural reeds, reminiscent of a sea urchin; a second rug, this one a plush Beni Ourain; and a lacquered teal dresser. “I always joke that when I die, you can just cremate me and put me in this dresser,” Leila says. “It’s just that perfect.”

Yet despite the varied art and sleek trappings, heirloom antiques and edgy installations, this, Leila insists, is an old-school beach cottage through and through. The L-shaped porch, original to the house, she says, “is our sacred place. As a family, we live out here.”

It’s where ocean finds make landfall—more shells, found artifacts, “wacky stuff”—and more art and heirlooms are born. “This started as an old kayak,” says Leila of a large whale skeleton-esque sculpture hanging from the ceiling. It was a Klepper kayak, which meant it could be folded up and carried around in a canvas sack. Buff remembers his mom and dad using it on camping trips they all took together. As a fun family project, and a creative way to pay homage to his mom, Buff took the kayak parts and constructed this original sculpture. He added a saw blade for teeth, and Leila and Jack painted it white. “It’s the first thing people see when they step up to our porch,” Leila says. “She’s our home’s good luck charm.”

There’s indeed an odd harmony, a highly curated air, to these rooms that Leila credits to Buff’s background in museums and hers in galleries. “We collect these things together, and we find ways to keep narrating.”

It is, after all, a story. And who better to tell it than the house itself?