MAKER’S MARK

by ROBIN HOWARD / photography by HOLGER OBENAUS

Originally planned as a spec, the three-story home is new and modern with the warmth and texture of a historical home. In the living room, a bookcase swings open to reveal a climate-controlled wine cellar. The hand-carved stone mantel bears the maker’s mark.

 

IF MARK REGALBUTO LOOKS FAMILIAR, it’s because you’ve seen him on This Old House, Charleston edition. Regalbuto and his business partner, Andy Meihaus, are the brains behind Renew Urban Charleston, a boutique construction company with expertise in historic preservation and high-end new construction. Regalbuto is about to take us on a tour of one of their recent projects, so get ready to check out one of the coolest houses you’ll ever see.

The three-story home sits on a modest 23-by-25-foot lot on Wentworth Street in downtown Charleston’s historic district. Regalbuto and Meihaus bought the empty lot with the idea of creating a house that would be new and modern but would also have all the warmth and texture of a historical home. To pull it off, they teamed up with architects Bill Huey and Daniel Beck. They also planned to recruit artisans from the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) to incorporate stone carving, masonry, plaster, timber framing and metalwork. For even more character, Regalbuto planned to raid his vast storehouse of salvaged materials.

The new construction home on Wentworth Street incorporates stone carving, masonry, plaster, timber framing and metalwork from students at Charleston’s American College of the Building Arts.

 

The partners intended to build the home as a spec, but Regalbuto met George Mosby first. Mosby had come to Charleston from New York City looking for a place he could put down roots. He liked the builder’s vision, but he had two nonnegotiable requests that would challenge Regalbuto’s considerable creativity: A wood-burning fireplace and a proper wine cellar. You and I are still standing in the driveway, so we’ll get to those in a minute.

Outside, the home has a true masonry exterior with no expansion joints, made possible by high lime content in the mortar. The windowsills and pediments are hand-carved from Indiana limestone—look closely and you can see the chisel marks. As we go up the front stairs, notice the hand-forged handrail with lamb’s tongue motif. Every detail outside the house, including the tabby driveway insert, hints at the many thoughtful and historical touches we’ll encounter inside.

Through a grand mahogany door we enter a cozy and sophisticated living room open to an equally cozy and sophisticated kitchen and dining room. Here is the coveted wood-burning fireplace, created after a long battle with the Board of Architectural Review. Not only is the fireplace precisely what the homeowner wanted, but it sports a hand-carved stone mantel—the sophomore project of an ACBA alumni under the guidance of Simeon Warren. A small heart—the maker’s mark—has been carefully carved in the top right side. It is a thing of beauty.

An Italian-inspired kitchen features modern amenities with historical touches and traditional details. A niche above the stove keeps olive oil and vinegars handy for cooking.

 

Now Regalbuto has something incredible to show us: The secret room. When the homeowner said he wanted a wine cellar, Regalbuto and Meihaus had to put on their thinking caps. This creative duo is always thinking, so I mean they had to put on their Extra Special Epic Problem-Solving thinking caps.

At 2,300 square feet with three bedrooms and an office, the house was already working hard. The only possible space for a wine cave was under the stairs. In a delightful Scooby-Doo moment, Regalbuto flips a hidden lever in the bookcase flanking the fireplace. The bookcase becomes a door, swinging open to reveal a pristine climate-controlled wine cellar. The best part? He built it on the fly. “If we’d done this on paper, it wouldn’t have worked,” Regalbuto says, as if winging secret rooms is all in a day’s work.

If you can manage to step away from the wine, we’ll head to the kitchen. Here, salvaged columns support the thick marble bar, and the walls are made from bricks salvaged from an old, historic Charleston building. Regalbuto had masons cut them in half horizontally so they wouldn’t increase the wall depth (and therefore the footprint) of the house. Over doors and windows, masons laid brick in jack arches, giving the impression that the brick walls are old and structural.

The stove niche is an original touch that reminds Regalbuto of his favorite Tuscan kitchens. Otherwise, the kitchen is clean and modern, with custom cabinets and enough room to host a party. Overhead hand-hewn beams saved from a barn in Kentucky contrast perfectly with the shiplap.

Brick was salvaged from a downtown Charleston demolition and cut in half horizontally to add visual depth without taking space from the interior.

With no room for a wine cellar in this compact home, the builder took advantage of unused space under the stairs. The climate-controlled room holds the homeowner’s impressive collection of wine and cigars.

 

The stairway is an obvious labor of love. The custom handrail has no sharp 90-degree angles. Instead, it snakes peacefully up all three flights in a seemingly unbroken line. Tall baseboards curve elegantly upward—there are no sharp angles here either.

On the second floor, we have the homeowner’s office and the master bedroom and bath. In a brilliant move, laundry facilities are tucked into a large master closet. The third floor is dedicated to guest space, with two bedrooms and a shared bath. A window in the second guest room was another last-minute addition. While on a scaffolding, Regalbuto and his contractor realized there was an incredible view of a church spire from that level, so they added a dormer window that frames a quintessential Charleston vignette.

Let’s go outside—you’re going to love it. Back downstairs, a door off the dining room leads to a backyard with a historical courtyard vibe. There is a sparkling plunge pool, a private outdoor shower, a fire pit, dining table and a TV that magically rises from a weatherproof cabinet. As we walk back up the steps, Regalbuto points out the rough edges of stone stair treads. He explains how the craftsperson had to heat the stone then strike it just right, so it broke in that beautiful, organic way.

In the master bedroom, the builder kept trim work simple to maximize visual height. Reclaimed brick lines the walls.

Keeping with the historical feel of the house, the builder kept finishes traditional and streamlined. An open, handmade wooden sink base helps expand the visual space in this bathroom.

 

Though he and Meihaus designed the home, Regalbuto walks through every space in reverent awe of the artisans who made it a reality. “We couldn’t do long lead orders in this home. We had to be patient. We had to let people do their work,” he says.

Standing in the kitchen, Regalbuto and I consider the house and the impact of all of its artists and makers. “This is not a disposable house. It will be here forever,” Regalbuto says quietly. We can certainly hope so.

Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at  robinhowardwrites.com.