A home that was originally built in the late '90s is once again ready for its close-up after a multi-year long renovation
By ROB YOUNG Photos by NEWPORT653
Funny how things turn out.
Susan and David Heller were thinking about the future several years ago, and where they’d like to eventually settle down to retire. “Florida,” David suggested.
“No,” Susan countered, before joking, “that’s where old people go. But what about South Carolina?”
“Have you ever been to South Carolina?” David asked his wife.
“No,” Susan said once more. “But I think it’s where we want to be.”
Funny, indeed. Today, the Hellers split their time between Sullivan’s Island and Highland Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. They found the property rather fortuitously after Susan’s wild vision had spurred them to visit South Carolina – and Charleston – for the first time. The couple considered Kiawah Island, but they didn’t feel a connection. “I was looking for a small town on the beach,” Susan remembers. “My husband said that didn’t exist anymore.”
To bide the time on a rainy day, Susan paged through a magazine in their hotel room. She came across a small paragraph on Sullivan’s Island. “I said, there it is! That’s the place!”
The Hellers bought their property 18 years ago. It was a spec home. Somehow, Susan always liked the idea of an old beach shack or bungalow, but knew her husband wouldn’t be keen on the notion. “He likes new things,” she says. And they knew eventually, the home would likely require renovations.
The remodeling efforts began five years ago, as the family enlisted architects Herlong & Associates and contractor Phillip W. Smith to complete the work in phases. The approach allowed for more livability and flexibility. The Hellers would enjoy the summers on Sullivan’s, then return to Highland Park in the winters, permitting the work to progress unfettered for a time. “The architect and builder knew what we wanted to accomplish,” Susan says. “They could take all the time they wanted in the winter, so we could have the summer to enjoy.”
‘To Those Who Wait’
It’s rare, particularly in the architecture or construction fields, to work with the same family or individuals at a private residence during such a long stretch of time. During the course of the work, the Hellers forged friendships and relationships with the Herlong team: principal architect Bronwyn Lurkin, and interior designers Theresa Bishopp and Elizabeth Jakubowski. “It’s different doing a renovation as compared to construction,” Bishop says. “When you’re in someone’s house and living space for a very long time, you have to relate to them on a more personal level. Design for everyday life becomes a very personal thing.”
The renovation progressed episodically, spanning over several falls and winters. “It was a natural evolution,” Lurkin says. “We started out with Susan and David’s large wish list and created the whole house renovations, so to speak, and reviewed how we wanted to break it up by phases. We looked at the big picture and what we wanted the result to be.”
From an architectural vantage point, it was transformative. The home began as a ’90s speculative home that offered modest vitality when compared to other Sullivan’s Island beach homes. Then it became a classic cottage similar to many of the home’s coastal neighbors. “It was a long project for us, but it was really exciting at the end,” Lurkin says. “Good things come to those who wait, and the owners could really enjoy themselves as they envisioned.”
A Phased Approach
But like any good story, the Hellers needed a solid beginning. “When we first started, we met with (Herlong & Associates proprietor) Steve Herlong and he brought along Bronwyn,” Susan says. “Then she added Teresa and Elizabeth. During the whole process, I don’t think we ever went four hours without having a question answered. They were remarkable, particularly considering that it was a long-distance project for us.”
Working with Susan was also a pleasure for the team. “She always had so many creative ideas herself, but always deferred to what our professional design ideas were,” Jakubowski says. “She definitely brought out the best in us. When you can brainstorm creative ideas as a team, you come out with the best design for the client.”
Smith, the home builder, provided the finishing touch. His company specializes in similar coastal projects, or properties that need to be constructed or renovated to withstand intense winds and salt air. “There’s a reason that doctors specialize in certain fields,” Smith says. “In the same way, builders also specialize to help control the outcomes of projects, and achieve the highest level of performance. We’re able to stand behind everything we build for a lifetime.”
The effort started with the pool. That was the ultimate vision for the first act. “We added a pool and hot tub and outdoor bathroom,” Susan says. “We expanded the decks on the first and second floors, and built a staircase up to the second floor. Then we connected the deck from my daughter’s room to the guest room and added a walkway.”
The first phase was probably the hardest, but it laid the foundation. “Our relationship (with Susan and David) grew exponentially over the years,” Smith says. “It was good, then it got better, and then it became great.”
The following year, the Hellers focused on the first floor. Herlong and team basically gutted the entire story except the master bedroom. “There were a few things we wanted to change,” Susan recalls. “We moved the front of the house out a little bit, and maybe added three feet in front, because we felt the outside was more of a box. I thought (the team) did a great job and made it look beautifully.”
The phase afforded additional charm and curb appeal. “We redid the entry and changed the front step and porches, and really reworked it to provide better perspective and flow,” Lurkin says.
The office was relocated to a more removed area, and the kitchen and laundry room saw substantial change. “I really enjoyed seeing the house change from a small galley style kitchen and laundry area to a space that provided more function for Susan,” Jakubowski says.
The Closing Frame
As they progressed, the level of trust also increased, particularly important as they collaborated and reviewed ideas for the interior. Susan had worked with a decorator from the Chicago area for many years. He was well acquainted with the Hellers’ tastes, and fit seamlessly into the process. “We still wanted to work with and use local people,” Susan says. “Theresa was just unbelievable about finding sources and putting me in touch with local craftspeople. I was just amazed at how much information she had.”
At the same time, the team admired Susan’s tastes. “If you look at the finishes in the house, Susan doesn’t do what everyone else does,” Bishopp says. “She doesn’t always take the safe road. She has a blue stove and zinc countertops, which are different materials from what many people may use. The result is beautiful.”
The third segment comprised the media room and a refurbishment of the area, including doors, windows and fireplace. The team essentially flipped the way the room faced and changed the focal point from one side of the room to the other. “We changed where we had the doors and windows located, and removed the old doors to add new ones. The windows had a curbed ’80s-’90s vibe, and we removed those,” Susan says. “We removed the fireplace, which we did not use, changed beams across the ceiling and dormered the ceiling. It was just a matter of freshening up the room.”
The fourth and final phase began last October and concluded near Christmas. It constituted a Jack and Jill bathroom between the guest bedrooms. “It was totally cosmetic,” Susan says. “We added title from the floor to ceiling, and added new toilets. No walls were changed.”
No fifth phase is planned – for now. It’s just as well; those four chapters of change seem just right. “Our neighbors once described our home as the house always under construction,” Susan says, laughing. “But we wanted all the phases to be connected, even if took more time. Not everything goes perfect – that never happens. But the team never failed to make it right, and in the end it turned out very beautiful.”
Architect: Herlong & Associates, 883-9190, herlongarchitects.com
Builder: Phillip Smith, 843-881-9828, phillipsmithcontractor.com