Winter Colony Revivalists Lelee Brandt and Tom Francoline have transformed their historic home on Union Street into a relaxing winter retreat.
photography by Steve Bracci
Aiken is a melting pot of horse people and historians, scientists and students, artists and artisans, writers and realtors, and some people who, by intention or accident, and definitely by honorable distinction, fit every conceivable category. Winter Colony revivalists, like Lelee Brandt and Tom Francoline, who retreat from northern climes about four months out of the year—late December to early May—add spice to the soup. Many like Lelee and Tom arrive with their horses and dogs and rent cottages to accommodate their hiatus. Tom and Lele once did the same, but decided they wanted a more permanent feel to their part-time residence.
From the late 1800s to mid-1900s, Aiken’s Winter Colony thrived as a socialite paradise for sojourners from the northeast, spurring the evolution of Aiken as an unmatched equestrian haven. After a 60-year heyday, however, Winter Colony went into decline around WWII. In the ensuing decades, many homes that once hosted marvelous soirées fell to wrack and ruin, including Lelee and Tom’s dear turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Victorian on the corner of Union Street and Colleton Avenue. Built by the Staub family who then owned the entire block, their house has the dubious distinction of having once been the jewel in the crown of a past South Carolina state senator and at other times a roof over the heads of vagrants. It was fortunate to have found cover in the care of previous owners, Bonnie and Bud Coward.
The porch’s inviting wicker furniture invites long sits with a good book or good friends.
A wrought iron gate opens through a whitewashed, ivy-covered brick wall onto a herringbone patterned brick walk and up to a dollhouse exterior with a half-wrapped porch and whitewashed steps.
A dollhouse exterior with its half-wrapped porch and whitewashed steps bids passers-by to enter into a fantastical world of make-believe. “Let’s play house,” the blue Victorian with pristine white trim seems to call. Enter the wrought iron gate through the whitewashed, ivy-covered brick wall and step back to happy days of childhood. It takes every ounce of adult restraint to resist skipping down the herringbone patterned brick walk and onward along one of the shaded curving paths leading to garden rooms done up in Southern hues of green. Wicker porch furniture invites long sits with good books or good friends or good wine. Even the proclaimed “Wit’s End” on the mailbox by the front door promises respite reminiscent of the early days of Aiken.
Through the glass-paned, double front doors lies an interior world of adult sophistication that, rather than tugging at the senses this way and that, sets the mind at ease. It supplies visual relaxation unexpected in a Victorian home. Neutral paint and fabrics defy the unruliness of traditional Victorian décor. “The concept was to honor the original design and create a functional modern residence,” says Lelee of the undertaking that involved not just updating, but also substantial renovations to the kitchen, library and bathrooms and the addition of a first floor master bedroom suite that even to the discerning eye looks original to the house. A mudroom with an exterior door on the Union Street side was also added.
In contrast to their rambling country Victorian in Salisbury, Conn., which is filled with color and collections, Lelee and Tom wanted their village Victorian in Aiken to possess a zen-like, grown-up, monochromatic serenity. They relied on Jane Hottensen, friend and owner of Folly (on Laurens Street in Aiken), to help them achieve their goal. “Jane kept me focused,” says a tickled Lelee, who found it hard to resist the desire to purchase needlepoint chairs and ornate sofas. “She saved me from myself. My normal inclination is not toward contemporary.”
Though Hottensen added contemporary elements such as the glass dining room table and sisal area rugs in lieu of orientals, she also attended subtly to traditional Victorian detail. Victorian décor has four cornerstones: Color, pattern, opulence and romance. Without going over the top, which can often lead to a cluttered environment, each of these categories is represented in Lelee and Tom’s Colleton Avenue home. The greens, golds, aubergines and reds typical of Victorian interiors, although not applied to walls, have a voice in the many oil paintings throughout the rooms. Animal-print textiles, primarily leopard and zebra prints, used sparingly create an impression of bridled lavishness and refinement. Equestrian-themed prints and oils hint at the enchanting thrill of hounds in full cry and the poetic gleam of simpatico relationships between horses and humans.
Lelee Brandt and Tom Francoline
Embarking on their hunt for an Aiken residence, Lelee spent countless hours with real estate agent, David Stinson, who specializes in historic properties, viewing house after house with no success. Surreptitiously, she remarked to him one afternoon as they drove down Union Street toward the corner of Colleton, “Why isn’t a house like that ever on the market?” With those fateful words, Stinson’s legwork and a handshake deal with the Cowards, she summoned the property into possession. “It looked more like home that anything else we saw,” says Tom, who believes that if one is going to live in the South, then one must absolutely have a front porch.
Adding reclaimed antique materials, including doors, mantels, pine flooring and hardware, ultimately imbue the new and renovated areas of the house with period authenticity. A diamond pattern, hand-painted by local artist Jeannie Groat, adorns the pine floor of the wide main hall.
The spacious modern kitchen off the dining room is well-suited to entertaining friends and family.
They closed in September of 2008 and immediately launched the planning phase for the renovations and additions. “Lelee was the engine of that process,” credits Tom. His and her professional backgrounds, however, played in their favor. Tom is the owner of Avonridge, a home-building company in Connecticut’s Farmington Valley. Lelee is a home-designer and project manager who concentrates on new construction built with reclaimed antique materials. Their combined knowledge and expertise enabled them to clearly envision the final product and the steps necessary to achieve their goal. By the time they put the construction out to bid by local contractors, all decisions had been made and the city’s design review board had granted approval. Lelee had even acquired the antique materials, including doors, mantels, pine flooring and hardware that ultimately imbue the new and renovated areas of the house with period authenticity.
Under the direction of builder Greg Shultz, construction ensued in March 2009 and was completed in time for the couple to move in the first week of the following January. Thanks to careful planning, no unforeseen roadblocks and the Cowards’ generous availability to answer questions, everything was finished on time and within budget. Tom says, “The bones of the house were excellent. The challenges were in the mechanical systems and the floor plan.”
Electrical wiring was replaced and the old fuse system finally updated to circuit breakers. More complicated than that, in order to insert a Union Street access, an obsolete fireplace had to be removed from the back wall of the kitchen. But to adhere to the mandates to maintain historical integrity, its brick chimney on the roof had to remain. Thoughtful problem-solving led to building a bridge system in the attic to support the chimney. The rest of the fireplace brick was removed and incorporated into the brick patio, an outdoor addition accessed from both the library and the master bedroom through French doors.
Generous floor moldings and toothed crown moldings frame rooms. Pure white paneled wainscoting adds richness to the entry, while bead board wainscoting in the same luxurious high gloss anchors the three-and-a-half bathrooms and the mudroom. The master suite addition, even to the discerning eye, looks original to the house, while the room’s Hitchcock ceiling gives a nod to old Aiken.
All of the hard work done, Lelee and Tom bask in the culmination of their efforts. Lengthening March days, when spring bites at winter’s heels, routinely find Lelee and Tom reclining on the porch. It’s the front porch overlooking a neatly trimmed hedgerow of boxwoods that Tom reflects on when comparing his Connecticut home to this one. Of course, the typically Southern landscaping that includes palm, hydrangea, magnolia, hosta, gardenia, dogwood and crepe myrtle announces quite obviously that this place is distinct, but the porch is the real dividing line. “We have lots of places to sit [in our Connecticut house], but we never sit down. That front porch is the most different place from home,” says Tom. “The whole thing is delightful.”
More than two years have drifted away since Lelee and Tom took occupancy, but the thrill has not worn thin. “I drive by and think, ‘Look at that pretty house,’” Lelee says. “How lucky are we that we get to go there?” Whether enjoying the evening air and cocktails with friends or standing at the kitchen sink waving to folks out for a stroll, Lelee and Tom make the most of Aiken’s carefree days of winter. The magical life to which that dollhouse exterior hints really does exist in this grown-up manifestation. •