Drews and Giebner spend plenty of time on their back porch. Credit: Peter Frank Edwards
Preservation Magazine, Fall 2017

A South Carolina Couple Renews a House Passed Down Through Generations

Kuhne-Drews House | Charleston, South Carolina, 1915

Owners: English Kuhne Drews (interviewed) and Stephen Giebner

FULL CIRCLE: I grew up on [nearby] James Island, but I spent a lot of time in this house. My great-grandparents, who came from Germany, built it in 1915. My grandmother lived here until she died, and my father grew up in it before renting it to tenants. When he moved to assisted living we would ride by it about once a week. He loved the house and had really fond memories of it.

When my father passed away in November of 2014, my husband and I had to think about what to do with the house. It had been a rental property for about 30 years, and there were still tenants living there. By then, it was in bad shape and the appraiser said we should tear it down. The electrical panel was hanging outside on the back stoop, it had termite damage, and it lacked any central heat or air.

The foursquare house was built in 1915. Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

The original iron railing at the front stairs was designed by renowned Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons.

HELPING HANDS: We had concerns that renovating it was bigger than anything we could take on, but demolition really wasn’t on my mind—with the family history, it just wasn’t an option.

We knew a contractor, Marc Engelke, who does a lot of preservation work in the neighborhood. One of our tenants suggested Marc and I walk through our neighbor’s house, which had gone through a renovation a few years back and had a similar floor plan. And after we went through it I knew what we needed to do.

Before, my husband would say that we couldn’t see past what was to what could be, and that was true. It wasn’t until we saw what Marc and other people had done in the neighborhood that we realized we could do this.

We never worried again. Every time we found something that was a problem, like more termite damage, I was always thankful and would say, “OK, we found it, that’s great, let’s fix it.”

MEMORY LANE: In October of 2015 the work started. One day during the renovation, Marc was working in the crawl space underneath the house. I stuck my head under, and when I smelled the dirt I had a flood of memories come back. I remembered playing in the yard and taking baths in the bathtub, and my grandmother making French toast in the kitchen. We aimed to keep as much of the integrity of the building as we could while also making it livable for ourselves and preserving the family history.

PIECE BY PIECE: Anything that could be reused or saved was. All of the hardwood floors upstairs are original. There wasn’t enough of the flooring to salvage downstairs, but we sourced heart pine that was originally used in a cotton mill in Georgia. We made sure the original rosettes and trim had a place. The columns on the front porch had a lot of water damage at the bases, so we had mahogany bases built and connected them to the original heart pine pieces.

The fireplace mantel is decorated with objects from Drews' family. Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

Drews decorated the mantel with family heirlooms, like the pink vase.

As we renovated, we began to better understand the house’s history. We took down a wall that was added when the house was turned into a duplex, and we could see where doorways had been covered up and turned into bookcases. We also found the outlines of steps, so there were probably back steps that took you to the upstairs portion when it was first built.

HONEYMOON PHASE: We moved in April of 2016, and we’re still so in love with the house. The energy in it is just amazing. There’s not a room that I don’t use at some point. The entryway is one of my favorites, and I like to sit upstairs in the front parlor. It has a lot of great light.

WHAT GOES AROUND: In 2016 the Preservation Society of Charleston gave us a Carolopolis Award [that’s given to exceptional preservation projects in the city]. It’s funny, because the whole purpose of this renovation was to save it because it was in the family. But it ended up being recognized as something that contributes to the neighborhood.

Charleston is so special, with its history and preservation, so to be recognized by the Preservation Society in a town where that was so significant was really wonderful. I knew that the family would be proud.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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