Birdsong, as the farm is called, is just the sort of place you might have found in the early 19th century on Wadmalaw Island, just south of Charleston, South Carolina. The classic Greek Revival-style house is at first glance modest and unpretentious, with gracious proportions and handsome features. A lovely porch looks over the water and invites the sea breeze. Triple-hung windows filter the golden Low Country light. A passerby might nod appreciatively and carry on her way. If invited in, however, she might swoon. One arrives at a country house and enters a palace.
Well, maybe not a palace, but Birdsong is an architectural gem. It is also newly constructed and felicitous proof that, yes, they do make them like they used to—and sometimes better. Designed by the Charleston preservationist architect Glenn Keyes, the main house is a cruciform structure shaped by two intersecting hallways that are 12 feet wide, creating four square rooms with 13-foot-high ceilings.
There is a sitting room, library, kitchen, and guest room. Added at the back are a master bedroom and screened porch. There is no dining room. Meals are taken informally in the kitchen, more formally at the round table in the central hall, or, for larger groups, at a long, narrow table running the length of the space. Says Charleston-based designer Amelia T. Handegan, "It isn't a huge house, but the scale makes it feel grand." With the hallways themselves functioning as living areas, she says, "the owners live all over the house. There is no wasted space."
Such expansive hallways, however, create challenging spans of wall. Handegan's inspired solution is murals of surrounding scenes in the style of the 1920s Charleston watercolorist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. San Francisco artist Scott Waterman deftly emulated Smith's paintings, and the mural in each place in the house depicts the scene outside it. Says the owner, "It's what you'd see if the walls weren't there."
Elsewhere, Handegan's soft, watery palette and light touch with materials and textures enliven Regency antiques and classical fixtures and art. Heavy silks and damasks are eschewed for cottons and linens. Oriental rugs share floor space with sea grass and jute, and period pieces are interspersed with contemporary ones.
The designer's sense of refined simplicity creates an atmosphere of elegance and ease that's suitable to the rural setting and to the owners' low-key lifestyle. The couple, who lived in the Midwest before moving to the South, divide their winter months between Wadmalaw and Charleston, where they are active in civic causes and conservation. Having worked with Keyes and Handegan in their Charleston house, the couple played to their team's strengths—and their own.
Indeed, the husband prompted the house's design. Among his many interests—books, maps, art, and history—is the Civil War. A Florida native whose ancestors served in that war, he came upon a particular house in south Georgia while in the course of family research—one that he never forgot. With a floor plan of wide cross halls and corner rooms, he says, "it stuck in my mind for quite a long time." Heritage and history, like Birdsong's grand halls, intersect today in a place called home.
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