East Meets South: A Renovated Historic Charleston Home

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The guest bedroom is bedecked with textiles from Eve’s company, Lulan, including a soft-blue silk duvet cover; a tasseled throw in taupe-toned silk; and throw pillows in several shades and patterns. To create a serene retreat, Eve decorated with a cool palette of green and lavender and incorporated the clean lines of Asian furniture, including a mahogany bed with rattan panels and Ming-style bedside tables.
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Bordering a centuries-old cemetery, private courtyard and cobblestone pedestrian alley, the Blossoms’ historic home, formerly slave quarters, is a secluded sanctuary.
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Eve often sets the 18th-century dining table with celadon Depression glass. The scroll-back chairs are upholstered in Lulan’s “Horizon Line” silk. Contemporary Vietnamese paintings and a Czech art nouveau pendant lamp create bold silhouettes against the plaster walls. To filter the light, Eve chose Lulan’s sheer organza window panels with a pattern of raised diamond brocade.
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In the living room, imported crafts create an exotic backdrop for the English Art Deco club chairs with original cherry-red leather upholstery and a round Indonesian ottoman covered by Lulan textiles. The carpet, a hand-knotted silk runner with an abstract geometric pattern (Lulan’s “Constellations” design), brings the room into the 21st century.
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In the kitchen, a row of illuminated cubbyholes, painted a deep shade of saffron, displays some of Jon and Eve’s cherished objects from Asia. Amber, hand-blown glass lights add another element of warmth to the space.
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Jon and Eve Blossom’s downtown location puts them within walking distance of restaurants and entertainment and allows them to share a car.
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With the help of two other architects, Eve redesigned the kitchen layout and created space for a new bathroom without adding on to the home.
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An English campaign bed that belonged to a brigadier-general during the War of 1812 takes center stage in the master bedroom. Designed to be set up and taken down easily during camp movements, the bed’s lightweight wood components are marked with Roman numerals. Horizontal stripes of luminous silk in Lulan’s “Stems” pattern covers the canopy. A duvet cover featuring asymmetrical stripes and throw pillows clad in a variety of Lulan patterns adds subtle vibrancy.

Like the fine handwoven textiles she markets, entrepreneur Eve Blossom’s life is imbued with many passions, including a strong environmental and social consciousness and a love of world cultures, particularly Southeast Asia’s. Her husband, Jon, a computer-game designer, shares Eve’s passions and enjoys wielding hammers and power tools during home improvement projects.  So the couple was more than up to the task of creating a sustainable home that blends their sophisticated, worldly tastes with the rich, traditional architecture of their historic Charleston, South Carolina, home.

Eve and Jon met in San Francisco and moved to Charleston six years ago. “We were looking for a city that was smaller than San Francisco, an easier place to live with high per capita culture,” Jon says of the couple’s decision to relocate. With a walkable downtown and the Spoleto Festival USA, an annual celebration of international performing arts, Charleston qualified on both counts. “We wanted attractive architecture, historic homes and no snow,” Eve says.

The Blossoms rented a house for the month of July to test the waters and see if they could bear the summer heat. By August they had bought a diminutive, 1,600-square-foot, 18th-century slave quarters looking out on a centuries-old cemetery. “At first, I was afraid Eve wouldn’t like the
cemetery,” Jon says, “but now we both see it as one of the best things about the house. It’s like having our own private park.”

Sheltered by the cemetery on one side, a private courtyard on another and a cobblestoned pedestrian alley on a third, the house feels secluded even though it’s in the bustling heart of Charleston’s historic downtown. “We’re two blocks from the water, near all these restaurants–and we can share a car,” Jon says. “Even so,” Eve says, “the house is a cottage-y, tucked-away kind of place. It’s a calm respite from the world.”

As the owner of Lulan Artisans–which sells high-end, handwoven silks, natural fabrics and decorative accents–Eve flies regularly to Southeast Asia to consult with weavers and artisans. Jon also travels frequently and works long hours. “As soon as you turn down the alley, it’s cool and quiet,” he says. “You’re in this oasis–no cars, no noises, trees everywhere and houses that haven’t changed for more than a century. There’s nothing to tell you it’s not 1800.”

Materials with integrity

During their house hunt, the Blossoms saw a number of homes with renovated interiors where much of the historical material had been replaced. Dedicated to maintaining the original integrity of the house and to using natural, nontoxic and environmentally low-impact materials, Jon and Eve considered their house’s “fixer-upper” condition an asset. The lack of upkeep in the house meant older materials were there to salvage, while materials that did have to go–such as the flimsy, 1940s-era plywood walls and ceiling–could be replaced with green materials. Removing the walls also gave the couple an opportunity to install concealed wiring for their high-tech lifestyle. After removing the first floor’s warped plywood walls and ceilings, they put in formaldehyde-free insulation, wallboard and Sherwin-Williams Harmony Interior Latex, a low-odor, zero-VOC, silica-free paint.

After sanding the polyurethane finish off the existing heart-pine floors, Eve and Jon treated them with a low-VOC tung and linseed oil product from BioShield Paint Company to bring out red tones in the grain. They replaced damaged floorboards and stair treads with recycled heart pine that is formaldehyde free and fits the weathered aesthetic of the circa 1740 house.

When the Blossoms bought the house, the kitchen was an L-shaped area that opened off the entrance hall and dead-ended by the living room. With the help of architects Beau Clowney and Sam Furr, Eve redesigned the space to create a powder room and an open-ended galley kitchen that connects the living and dining rooms. They even created enough room for a pantry by replacing the conventional water heater with a much smaller, more energy-efficient tankless heater and by trading the side-by-side washer and dryer for a stackable unit.

The Blossoms also used recycled wood to create custom cabinetry in the kitchen and bathroom, and Eve spent months searching for the ideal kitchen countertop. Though stone is natural, it’s usually finished with chemical sealants, so the couple chose Silestone, made of nonporous quartz that doesn’t require sealing.

By the time the renovation was finished (four years after they moved in), the couple had replaced, refinished or repainted nearly every surface. “We’ve pretty much guaranteed the house is low in VOCs and lead free,” Jon says.

American South with an Asian twist

Because the cottage was originally slave quarters, it doesn’t have the grand proportions and elaborate details associated with historic Charleston architecture–which was a relief to the Blossoms. “We’re not at a point in our lives where we want an opulent home,” Jon says. They found, instead, that the restrained architectural details–deep cornice moldings, wooden wainscoting, neo-Classical mantels–that were added during a 1940s Colonial Revival makeover provide a handsome setting for their eclectic furnishings and Lulan textiles.

“Because the house is traditional in style, we felt the décor shouldn’t be too Asian, so we used a mix of American, English and Asian furniture,” Eve says. “Our love of Asia comes in through all the decorative objects we’ve collected: ceramics, wood carvings, basketry and art. The textiles, which look both contemporary and traditional, take the look in an Asian direction and tie it all together.”

Eve imports, designs and produces textiles created through labor-intensive, hands-on spinning, dyeing and weaving processes. Artisans extract most of the dyes from natural sources and spin the silks and other natural fibers especially for Lulan. “Because each length of fabric is woven on one loom that one weaver establishes and returns to daily, there’s an inherent intimacy in our cloth,” Eve says, adding that Lulan’s goals include paying artisans appropriately and nurturing sustainable economies that reward fine craftsmanship. 

“It’s a beautiful marriage,” says Eve. And while she’s talking about her company’s products, she could be describing the seamlessly fused home she and her husband have woven around themselves. 

A conversation with the homeowners

What do you love most about this house?

Jon Blossom: I love the character it’s developed over time: its asymmetries, the architectural scars accumulated over centuries of use, and the sense of time and place I feel when I’m there.
Eve Blossom: I love that the back of our house faces a church cemetery and we hear the bells ringing every day.

What’s your favorite room?

Jon: In summer, I like the living room, where you can relax in a cool, airy place surrounded by outside views. In winter, I like hunkering under a blanket in the guest bedroom, where the green walls and treetops visible through every window create the sense of hiding in a fantastic tree house, right in the middle of downtown Charleston.
Eve: My favorite room is the new downstairs bathroom. I remember it being just a walk-through area to the kitchen. Now it has its own sense of place and fits well with the rest of the historic house.

What would you do differently?

Eve: Nothing. We waited to start our renovation after living in the house for two years, so we thought about it for a long time. Of course, newer and greener materials are always coming onto the market. We used the greenest stuff out there at the time, but you could find even better materials now.

What advice can you offer homeowners planning a green renovation?

Jon: Use quality materials and don’t skimp on craftsmanship. Our house has survived floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, wars and economic crises, in major part because of the quality of the materials and because people used to build more for permanence than for profit.
Eve: Research products and materials before you start. Plan the restoration andor construction phases well, keeping in mind that it always takes longer and costs more than you think–about 10 to 15 percent more. (Note: To learn about cutting-edge sustainable materials, check www.EcoBusinessLinks.com, www.TreeHugger.com, www.GlobalGreen.org and Green Building Products edited by Alex Wilson and Mark Piepkorn (New Society, 2006).

The Good Stuff

• Original heart-pine floors treated with nontoxic tung and linseed oil
• Formaldehyde-free insulation
• Low-odor, zero-VOC paints
• Handspun, handwoven Lulan Artisans textiles made from silk and other natural fabrics, hand-colored with low-impact and natural dyes
• Silestone quartz countertops that require no sealing
• Replaced damaged floorboards and stair treads and built custom cabinets of recycled wood
• Energy-efficient tankless water heater
• Reconfigured home layout to maximize space without adding on