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Raise High the Roof Beams

Creative bartering and a healthy dose of sweat equity allowed a young Charleston couple to transform a derelict 19th-century structure into an inspired living space.

In the 141 Spring Street project, resident Josh Nissenboim prepares food in the kitchen. The countertop is Carrera marble, chosen because for its lightness and ability to wear in naturally. He and his wife, Helen, keep cooking staples within easy reach on simple shelving. By sticking with the most basic essentials, the shelves are open and spacious rather than overly stacked.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the genteel city on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, reigning style dictates an appreciation for deep porches, painted wood, and 19th-century antiques. For designers Helen Rice and Josh Nissenboim, a gamine artist and a chess fanatic with a homegrown design studio, merging regional roots with a sharply honed aesthetic proved a worthy challenge, and one that drew on the talents and craftsmanship of a community of friends.

The self-admitted workaholics sought a historic house with a larger-than-average footprint so they could incorporate the operations of their design company, Fuzzco, into their living space. (They’ve since moved Fuzzco headquarters down the street, to a one-story structure they also gutted and redesigned.) Also important, for reasons both practical and personal, was a good yard—in a shaky real estate market, acreage is a tangible asset, and both Rice and Nissenboim have a love for outdoor space and growing edible plants. They found exactly what they were seeking for less than $400,000 in 141 Spring Street, an 1852 wood frame with graceful proportions.

The ladder, created by Peyton Avrett, is an unorthodox way to the upstairs, and it also serves as a fire escape since the house only has one stairwell.
Their residence is considered a classic Charleston single, defined as a one-room-wide structure that hugs one side of a lot with a two-story piazza along the side and a front door that leads onto the open porch. The house had been unoccupied for over a year, leaving the lot exposed to enterprising treasure seekers and indigents looking for a place to camp out. To the casual observer, it appeared completely neglected: peeling paint, ramshackle yard, crumbling plaster, broken appliances and fixtures, and single-paned windows insulated with newspapers and duct tape. Rice and Nissenboim were undeterred. “We were looking for something worn in to play with,” Rice explains.

Luckily, the building, which at one time had accommodated a family of nine, had retained its original charm. Nissenboim describes its state at the time of sale: “It was bright yellow and teal. The yard was full of pits where people had dug for buried treasure [the couple found old bottles, china dolls, and marbles]—even the old privy had been raided.”

It was important to Rice and Nissenboim to find a house with a large yard. They worked with Remark Landscape Architecture to remove three large hackberry trees to make way for a vegetable garden, while three citrus trees on the western line of the property produce oranges and lemons.
Rice and Nissenboim’s design ethos is rooted in gallant perfectionism: If it’s done right the first time, the effect is lasting. Such is the case at their home. Though the house was nothing remarkable in the surrounding landscape of stately peninsula homes, it had solid bones for a decidedly breathable, low-key, and modern living space—even if its windows hadn’t changed since the 19th century. “It was our love of the old materials that dictated a lot of the renovation decisions,” says Rice. “We didn’t want to overshadow or alter those elements in any unnatural way. We wanted the space to feel warm but spare, with a mixture of old and new.”

Due to its age, the house was under strict permitting rules for exterior work. For interior work, the pair had to pull electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and demolition permits, and their friend and architect Johnny Tucker completed all requisite drawings. The walls, outfitted in vintage floral wallpaper and covered in the original plaster plus layers of rotten Sheetrock and wood paneling, had to be replaced. The floors were in even worse shape: hardwood covered with two layers each of linoleum and plywood, or two layers of plywood topped by disintegrating carpet. Also in need of delicate repair was the foundation, which boasted brick piers with mortar that had almost turned to sand.

The couple plans on relining the flues this winter, but in the meantime the mantels serve as much needed horizontal space.
Though Rice and Nissenboim stayed within the basic vocabulary of the traditional Charleston single (no fractal surfaces or cantilever additions here), they relaxed historic preservation guidelines on the interior in favor of a stripped-down aesthetic. The most noticeable alteration is in the back rooms, which were tacked onto the house at the turn of the century. There, they removed two walls to carve out an open living space and removed outdated wooden wall paneling to reveal an original tongue-and-groove wall. The architect admits that “taking a ceiling down to expose beams is sort of a no-no to the preservation crowd,” but that’s precisely what was done in order to reveal the home’s sturdy horizontal beams, milled from dense old-growth trees.

The house’s flexible configuration accommodates all the live/work activities of its industrious owners. Over the course of a day, it’s not uncommon for them to prepare a Spartan but impeccable breakfast, bike to and from their office down the street to meet with Fuzzco clients, pick vegetables from an abundant garden, play croquet on the lawn, or host a rotating cast of friends for dinner and a lively game of Bandu.

Many of the same friends contributed to the house’s transformation. Local woodworker Michael James Moran built the kitchen cabinetry and open shelving lining the walls using modest birch plywood with poplar faces. Another buddy, Peyton Avrett, constructed the portico on the rear exterior, fabricated several lighting fixtures in the kitchen, and built a custom ship’s ladder that leads down from a hole in the ceiling, an efficiently quirky route from floor to floor. Billy Compton, the couple’s go-to restoration carpenter, filled in wherever he was needed. This community spirit, along with all the work the residents did themselves, gave the project the feeling of a modern-day barn-raising.

An aperture in the floor of the master bedroom leads down to a sitting room via a ladder.
In addition to swinging sledgehammers in the middle of the night, Rice and Nissenboim also bartered Fuzzco design services for work done on 141 Spring: “We traded logo design, print-collateral design, website design and development, video production, audio composition, and back massages.” All of this collaboration has yielded side projects with other local up-and-comers, including an interior design consultancy, a software company, and a monthly pop-up dinner series with the the chef and manager of FIG, a hugely popular restaurant that jump-started the local-food trend in Charleston.

As one of the handful of design-minded young people working in the area, Rice and Nissenboim (who both turn 30 this year) represent a shift in the cultural confidence of this city of 100,000. Charleston has always been known for its cute (and not entirely serious) galleries and charming cityscapes, but it’s also producing artists and designers that exercise a stronghold on the visual imagination of the city. In creating relationships with their peers through design collaboration, and rehabilitating existing but struggling property in the middle of downtown, Rice and Nissenboim are staking their claim on the creative future of South Carolina’s most progressive hamlet.

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