Sullivan’s Island is the salty, low-key counterpart to Charleston’s classic grandeur, the freewheeling yin to its genteel yang. Here, on the slim barrier island across from Charleston Harbor, weathered wooden floors welcome bare feet, screen doors slap in the breeze and children hop on bikes to get ice cream after sun-drenched days in the surf. The locale has long been a residential haven—no hotels, no stoplights, just wide beaches, gentle waves and Guinness on tap at the local pub.
The island’s relaxed, family-friendly ambience was precisely what drew a Connecticut couple with three teenage sons to vacation there, as they have for many summers, in an older home on a prime beachfront lot. Boasting broad views of the Atlantic, the site itself couldn’t have been more ideal, but the house was in dire need of updates. Thankfully, this 3.3-square mile island is architect Beau Clowney’s specialty. Having erected or renovated dozens of residences there since the 1990s, he confidently drew up plans for a site-appropriate cottage rehab. But when engineers pointed out structural issues, his clients opted, somewhat reluctantly, to start from scratch. “Now, we’re so happy we did,” says the wife. “This new house is strong and solid. It’ll be here for generations to come.”
Creating something new—and more gatherings-friendly—on the same footprint was a fun task for Clowney. “The goal was righting all the wrongs of the former house, and packing in family; loads of siblings, cousins and grandparents come and go,” explains the architect, who adds that everyone convenes here during the holidays. To maximize accommodations, he fashioned two charming bunk rooms—one outfitted in sinker cypress—along with two spacious guest suites.
Considered a master of Southern coastal vernacular, Clowney employed plentiful traditional architectural references—like a varied roofline with hips and gables and a dogtrot connecting a guest suite to the main house—helping the new construction ring true to the classic ambience of the island, complete with numerous nooks for privacy and fresh air for porch-sitting aplenty. “The exterior is reminiscent of other Sullivan’s houses over time,” Clowney explains. “Dormers allow for bedroom spaces without the massing feeling too overwhelming.” The architect says general contractor Pat Ilderton, a longtime resident of the island, intrinsically understood these features, and thus proved indispensable for capturing that low-key Lowcountry feel. “Pat knows and delivers classic Sullivan’s Island construction; he’s one of the very best.”
Ilderton’s seasoned knowledge also came in handy for owners intent on recreating some aspects of their previous abode, particularly its vast screened porch facing the beach. “We had so many amazing memories on our previous porch, so I wanted it the exact same size,” says the wife. “Actually, Beau made it a bit bigger.” A deck on the topmost level was another must-recreate feature. “Now, we have a place to watch the fireworks every Fourth of July; a family tradition,” she adds.
Inside, there’s evidence of more modern moves. Honey-colored wood on walls and ceilings and white-oak floors span an open floor plan where tall windows have been left largely undressed—giving the home a relaxed vibe and unimpeded views of the horizon. Designer Jenny Keenan says adjectives like “comfortable,” “welcoming” and “bright” were go-tos as she developed a contemporary, family-friendly design for the clients. “The wife loves clean, modern lines and a neutral palette—especially gray—so I started with that as the base, then added pops of color and whimsy to make it warm and inviting,” Keenan explains. “It’s definitely modern, but it has a softness to it—and some fun.” The designer set a spunky tone from the outset with a Sputnik-inspired fixture in the foyer, in turn leading to additional sculptural chandeliers, curvy upholstery and abstract motifs. Mindful of their tight-knit nature, Keenan was also careful to create lots of lounge spaces and seating areas for extended kin to hang out—namely, in the frequently used family room.
“In our old house, there was a tiny TV room with one couch and a chair; that was it,” recounts the wife, who likewise praises an improved kitchen layout with open shelving, shiplap paneling and plaster walls—a pleasing contrast of textures also specified by Keenan. “I cook a ton, and the kitchen functions beautifully.” When it comes time to serve those meals, she adds, “I love that we have lots of tables, inside and out, so I can feed 10 kids and 10 adults without everyone feeling squished.” One of these, in weather-ready aluminum and teak, is found on the beachfront screened porch, accommodating all with room to spare. It also happens to be the perfect spot for scoping out breaking waves or landscape architect Sheila Wertimer’s artful take on the classic Sullivan’s Island landscape: complete with sabal palmetto, oleander, wax myrtle, African iris, olive trees and others. “That’s why we love being here,” says the wife. “For us, this house is all about being with family and enjoying the outdoors.” Because when the location is right, it turns out, good things follow.