A House in Harmony
Photo by Chris Thelen
A life lived long and lived fully is a life with layers. Memories pile upon memories. Relationships define rings of growth. Slabs of time with their unique sets of experiences buckle and seep into the cracks between. Each possession collected over the years, as well as each one let go, serves as an anchor to one of those layers.
Houses are the same, from the dirt in the yard to the eaves and the attic. Every owner adds his or her own touch, big or small, flawed or fabulous. Families leave their footprints echoing across floors or impressed in concrete, all making changes to suit their needs. Jasmine Cottage, circa 1890, a sunny, yellow Lowcountry Victorian nestled on the corner of Colleton Avenue and Newberry Street in Aiken, is a many-layered place, having passed through the hands of several owners until most recently purchased by Helene and Francois Verglas, who undertook a full remodel.
Francois, a retired publishing executive, grew up in Paris, near the Garden Tuileries. Helene, a botanical artist, started out a world away in Concord, N.C. Graduate studies at the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania lured Francois to the States where, following graduate school, he began his career at Newsweek in New York. The city’s fashion and interior design industries called to Helene. Their paths merged beneath the stairs of the Hayden Planetarium at a benefit party.
Years went by and Helene and Francois began looking toward retirement. Simply by chance, while staying at the Inn of the Five Graces in Santa Fe in 2004, a book in their room had a picture of a beautiful mansion on the cover: Aiken’s fabulous Willcox Hotel. Inspiration struck and they reserved a room at the Willcox, situated, unbeknownst to them at the time, right across the street from their future home.
“We spent 10 days at Christmas and, at the end of the 10 days, we had made an offer on this house. A little bit of an impulse buy,” laughs Francois. Helene adds, “Compared to the prices in the Northeast, how could we not buy it? For me it was the price and the project.”
Merely calling it a project may be an understatement, however. Francois recounts, “I was going to be able to retire and put money in the bank. I was celebrating and patting myself on the back before I really knew what I was doing.” Helene says, “It’s a house that had been worked over by a succession of people, but that had never been redone entirely.” Thus, Helene and Francois set to work adding their layer—her the fastidious designer and him the adoring “bank.” Francois cuts to the point: If he had known how much they would have to put into the house, which they didn’t begin remodeling until 2006 and didn’t finish entirely until 2008, they would not have done it.
Anyone walking by on the sidewalk now would assume the cottage has always stood just so. A white picket fence along the Colleton Avenue side gives sweet contrast to the verdant green hollies behind it. Beyond the gate, an antique brick pathway leads visitors into a flat, Charleston-style garden only made possible by the truckloads of dirt required to level the front yard. Straight brick pathways to the right and to the left lead the eye and the occasional wanderer between boxwood partiers, among gardenias, azaleas and palms. Four white Adirondack chairs line up neatly on the front porch addition snuggled into the reworked front façade with an additional gable added for symmetry. A passerby must surely marvel at the perfect balance between privacy and please-come-in.
The front door swings open to reveal hand-stained heart-pine floors and an eclectic mixture of furnishings lending character to every room. Music pipes throughout Jasmine Cottage, playfully dancing with the sunlight filtering through plantation shutters that cleanly adorn the large windows. Gloss-white moldings, Hitchcock ceilings and classic mantels revel in their roles as accents in a well-appointed home. In the foyer, acting now as a bench, is the leather upholstered 18th-century military cargo bed Francois slept on in his teen years. Above it is a framed reproduction of Plan de Turgot, a map of 1734 Paris. Francois points out the arrondissement in which he grew up, near the Louvre.
Walnut-paneled walls in the library, to the right of the front door, support a surround of bookcases reaching to the ceiling, loaded with volumes of literature. Next to the hearth, a leather chair and ottoman offer a seat to the reader pulling books from the shelves and spreading them upon the antique breadmaker’s table. This room, with its ability to take sojourners to the ends of the universe and back before dinner on a Sunday afternoon, captures one’s imagination—almost as if on purpose, to prevent discovery of the hidden chamber on the other side of the Jack and Jill bathroom.
Past the crisp white tile, a bedroom removed from the household bustle offers respite between the sheets of Francois’s mother’s bed. What was once a closet opening into the library combines with the bedroom closet to form walk-in storage unusual in houses this many generations old. To preserve the room as a retreat, Helene and Francois walled over a door that once opened to the living room, making passage through the library the only entrance.
Across the foyer, opposite the library, Helene steps into the dining room, where the exterior wall was bumped out to give the facade equal weight on either end of the house and to extend the floor space. “I feng shui-ed the whole house,” she says casually, as if it is no more challenging than rearranging the furniture. Of the striking amethyst walls she explains that purple is an auspicious color in feng shui. Three antique cloche shimmer atop the china cabinet. Apothecary jars, spaced evenly on the oval dining table, protect candle flames from air currents. Most of the artwork in the dining room, and in the rest of Jasmine Cottage, is Helene’s and a careful observer begins to note the subtle hints of nature arranged purposefully, reminders that a house, though man-made, makes its place upon an earth burgeoning with life, an earth layered with its own history.
Turn the corner through the butler’s pantry and suddenly nature is not so subtle anymore. Entering the kitchen, attention rivets on the stark, white alligator skull holding court with the gas range on the honed, black granite counter of the island. The contrast is paralyzing, requiring the senses to stand still and process the display. Yet before they get a handle on it, one has turned and taken in the wild boar skull tilted at an opposing angle next to the deep farmhouse sink. A huge Swedish pine, freestanding armoire, with a sign above it reading Never Enough Thyme, calms everything down, marrying nicely with the twice-painted (the basecoat is red, a feng shui technique for neutralizing negative energy), French-gray cabinetry detailed with brushed nickel pulls.
Floor-to-ceiling cabinets, an extra large stainless steel refrigerator and a double oven form a wall where there was once a banister to the stairs that led to the lower level. On the other side of the kitchen, a gas fireplace, one of the home’s nine, is flanked by the butler’s pantry on the right and on the left a small pantry housing copper pots dangling from a wall-mounted rack, built-in cabinets and shelves lined with cookbooks. All the usual countertop clutter, such as the coffee pot and toaster oven, tucked out of sight in this nook.
From the kitchen, a hallway perpendicular to the foyer leads to the living room. But it is not purely a utilitarian avenue from one place to another. It is a gallery of Helene’s intricately drawn interpretations of nature. Industrial-minded track lighting suspended from the ceiling delicately spotlights the pieces. Behind several of the pictures Helene has taped slips of red paper to counteract the negative energy, according to feng shui principles, of her artistic rendering of certain subjects, such as birds of prey.
In this house, layers fold upon layers. But the living room melds much of it together. Francois’s French heritage and his travels around the world blend with Helene’s interest in Asian influences and bent toward decorating nuances. A glass-topped wrought iron railing from a French balcony fashioned into a coffee table situated over a Moroccan rug reflects the show. Here the world is at Helene and Francois’s fingertips. A Dutch painting hangs over the fireplace. Buddha charms from a Lucite pedestal giving him the appearance of hovering above a Japanese tea stand under which a Tang horse prances. If the juxtaposition of a Venezuelan headpiece against a pair of Louis XVI chairs against Russian icons is stimulating, stepping through the French doors to the original balcony overlooking Newberry Street and the quiet village atmosphere is soothing. Sometimes luck brings a picturesque scene of a horse or two clomping a path from nearby Hitchcock Woods.
The balcony is an oasis, but it does not rival the double back porches added by the Verglases. The upper porch, outfitted with antique French garden furniture is accessed from the master bedroom, providing a stunning view of the pool, which can be heated in winter and cooled in summer, as well as glimpses of Helene’s sunken garden. Morning coffee and evening dinner are taken on the upper back porch on occasion, the mood set by the fountain’s trickle of water into the pool.
Inside, the master bedroom features two 18th-century Portuguese twin beds formed into one by use of a custom-made bunkie board. A lift of the comforter reveals the wood knobs where, 200 years ago, ropes once tied. The beds, now counterbalancing the large fireplace with castle-sized andirons (brought from their Connecticut home, Horse Feathers) have held up remarkably under the load of thousands of dreams dreamt upon them—a fit focal point for sure.
The old world flavor of the master bedroom gives no hint to the surprise in the master bath, a generous well of luxury with a deep soaking tub from where Helene can appraise her garden in the spring and summer and enjoy the warmth of the gas coal fireplace in the cooler months. “My wife said this should be the master bath and I turned white,” Francois says, his arms outstretched toward the walls, the word “this” referring to the room that was a dining room when they bought the house. Helene defends her idea, saying, “I’ve always had in my mind to have as gracious a bathroom as possible.” As Francois walks across the white limestone floor and swells with pride over the glass-encased steam room that takes up one entire corner, it’s obvious no defense is necessary. This is the prize of the remodeling effort.
Still, the downstairs awaits, the steps leading there turned 180 degrees by the Verglases’ team. Helene works here in her studio, sitting at a 10-foot-long heart-pine table, polished to reveal the rich patina of the wood, in front of the raised hearth of a brick fireplace. Her space is filled with books and an assortment of dried plants and seashells and nests and nettles. When she needs to clear her head, she ducks out to the adjacent Zen garden and perches beneath the pergola on a bench next to the coy pond.
An additional bedroom carved out of what had been a two-bedroom apartment opens onto the lower back porch. Adirondack chairs welcome those seeking a shady sanctuary from the sun-drenched pool beyond the slate terrace, the crepe myrtles, the brick retaining wall, the green lawn. This is a perfect spot to hide away and reflect on what has been done and what is yet to do.
Layers, the sediment of a life, of a house, collected in eras and phases, proof of an existence secured in time and place. Layers stimulate interest. They make the mind settle, then flit, then settle again, like a butterfly from flower to flower. All of the layers deepen one upon another in a continuous becoming of a person and of a home. It’s an active process. “I couldn’t live in something and just leave it as it is,” says Helene. Francois agrees, “We like to take care of something that needs nurturing.” Thus and so, the stories of Helene and Francois and Jasmine Cottage weave together and carry on.