Step Inside This Restored Lowcountry Dock Cottage
A South Carolina family rescues and restores an early 1900s dock house and turns it into a lively overwater hangout.
When a ramshackle, century-old dock house on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, was first put up for auction, the owner-to-be wouldn't go anywhere near it. "My husband knows that if I see something historic, I'll fall in love," the homeowner says with a laugh. "At the time, we had young twins and had just completed a major renovation on our home, so I did not want a project."
But on the day of the auction, her husband called and convinced her to at least come take a peek at the old place. After all, it was only two blocks from their house—if nothing else, it was of neighborhood interest. But one glimpse inside the dilapidated wooden structure on the end of the splintering pier and, right on cue, she fell for its salty, storied past.
The property had once belonged to Fort Moultrie, a garrison that first took shape on the island's southwest end during the Revolutionary War. The Quartermaster's Dock and Dock House were built much later, in the early 1900s, and served as a drop-off point for artillery and ferry riders brought over from Charleston. But when Fort Moultrie was deactivated in 1947, the dock buildings were turned over to the state, and though the structures were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, they sat unused, slowly falling into the creek.
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"It was like [the house] had the wind knocked out of her sails," says designer LuAnn McCants, whom the couple hired to help with the restoration. "She was out of breath, and she just needed to be revived."
Together, they were determined to preserve the historic integrity of the overwater structure, while still making it a functional extension of the family's home. With this in mind, they decided to turn it into an easygoing indoor/outdoor hangout.
"Growing up on [nearby] James Island, I was always playing in the creek, fishing and crabbing," says the owner. "My children had never been exposed to that, so creating something that would honor the culture of the island felt right."
Still, there were a lot of question marks. "Before we started, we sat down and tried to make decisions about how best to rescue the structure," the owner recalls. "Our contractor, Happy Finucan—who's a man of few words—just sat back and said, "She will speak to us."" And so they listened.
First, they replaced the pilings under the dock that had deteriorated—while keeping the fragile building intact. Marine contractor Cape Romain shifted the entire structure inch by inch through a railroad track–esque system they'd built on the dock, installed 95 new pilings, and then moved the house back into position. The process took about a month. To preserve as many historic details as possible, they decided to keep the original pilings from the early 1900s alongside the new ones. "When you look down the dock, you can still see them," the owner says.
Local architects Steve Herlong and Bronwyn Lurkin carried the dock house the rest of the way. "In the beginning, we were probably tempted to change too much," says Lurkin. "But as we got further into it and got to know the building, we wanted to keep more of what was there, and change less. That was exactly the restraint it needed."
Board by board, they salvaged what they could, and then replaced termite- and water-damaged pieces with new timber milled to the old boards' exact specifications. They kept the original footprint, along with many of the window and door placements, including what had once been a large cargo door on the house's creek-facing wall. Now a windowed garage door rolls up to join the interior rooms to the dock; they installed another along the same wall for additional light and indoor/outdoor access. "You can open a window there and cast a fishing rod outside," says McCants, who chose durable slipcovers for the sofa and swivel chairs, and ipe decking—the same material used on the dock—for floors that can stand up to wet feet, bait buckets, and spilled cocktails.
The team took advantage of the spacious floor plan and designed a large living room that's open to a kitchen and bar, and a game room for the husband's poker nights. A shower/utility closet makes an ideal spot for shedding bathing suits and storing fishing rods. McCants brightened up indoors and out with a fresh coat of white paint, and then pulled a shade of pale blue from the original painted chimney flue to use for the trim.
"We wanted the dock house to look like it had always existed in this condition, instead of being abandoned," says McCants, who brought in vintage-style elements, like a washboard sink and a farmhouse table that doubles as an island, to help convey the building's character.
Nautical-style pieces throughout, such as rope light fixtures, reflect the history of the place; pre-restoration photographs of the dock house show just how far she's come. "Sullivan's Island is so rich in history, and the dock is a landmark," says the homeowner. "Whenever we're out there, people will walk up, and we always invite them in to see it. When you step inside the house, you know it's old. You can really feel its past."