In designer Chelsea Handegan’s 1854 Charleston row house, the dining room—part of the double-parlor floor plan—opens directly onto the living room to create one wide-open space. The antique French iron table and plaster medallions (hung atop Sabina Fay Braxton velvet panels) are from Casa Gusto. Skirted tables hide extra storage: “These old houses don’t have any closets, so I had to get creative,” says Handegan.

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Tour a Restored Charleston House Where Historic Charm Takes Priority

After decades as a student rental, the 1850s home has been brought back to gracious, glorious life.

July 6, 2024

The pursuit of beauty is not for the faint of heart. It often requires courage and perseverance, can sap your patience (and bank account), and force you to throw pragmatism right out the original antebellum window. “There is not one practical thing about this house,” says Chelsea Handegan of the 1854 Italianate Charleston row house she painstakingly restored with her husband, Jack, after a short stint in the suburbs.

The three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath residence with a “microscopic” kitchen and steep stairs might seem anathema for a couple with a five-year-old daughter (Hattie), an elderly golden retriever (Goose), and a cat (Cat), but the heart wants what it wants—in this case, 13-foot-tall ceilings, original plaster moldings, heart pine floors, and a historic double-parlor floor plan in which the living room opens directly onto the dining room. And to be fair, the Handegans aren’t total strangers to this kind of commitment: She’s an interior designer, and he’s the son of decorator (and preservationist) Amelia Handegan. “We’re familiar with forgoing practicality in favor of aesthetics,” Chelsea says.

In designer Chelsea Handegan’s 1854 Charleston row house, custom pink paint provides a warm backdrop for displaying antiques with modern restraint. She found the gilt Empire chandeliers (a matching one hangs in the dining room) at William Word Antiques in Atlanta. “They were my first, and perhaps favorite, purchase for the project,” she says. A custom Corbin Cruise coffee table adds a jaunty jolt of turquoise. The Gustavian demilune tables are from A. Tyner Antiques; sofa and armchair in Barnett linen-cotton fabric by Schumacher.

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Which is not to say the process was an easy one. “When we bought the house, it had been a rental for 30 years, mostly for college kids. It was not in pristine condition by any stretch of the imagination,” says the designer. “It still had all the knob-and-tube wiring from the 1900s and original cast-iron plumbing, which needed to be replaced.” In other words, “We had to do the things that cost a lot, but you can’t see.”

By the time the less glamorous tasks had been addressed, fatigue began setting in—specifically, the kind that comes with a professional life that requires Handegan to look at paint chips and fabric swatches all day. “When you come home, you don’t want to do it for yourself,” she admits. “We were a little like the cobbler’s children who don’t have shoes.”

A tall 19th-century Swedish cabinet balances the small scale of the dining table—perfect for a family of three. The silver tureen on the mantel is from John Pope Antiques, and the still life paintings are late-18th-century Italian.

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But even cobbler’s children have resources and a base of knowledge to draw from. After initially painting every room a creamy white (“I kicked the can. When I’m pressed to make a decision, I always regret it.”) Handegan reconsidered the palette, eventually landing on a scheme that would go on to set the mood for the interiors as a whole. “I knew I wanted the living and dining room to have warmth. I was drawn to the neutral pinks that the English get so right, which have brown undertones and none of the blue that can make it feel like a nursery,” she explains. Alas, nothing straight from the can yielded the not-too-sweet nuance she was going for. “It took weeks, if not months to get to the right color. My paint supplier wanted to kill me.” Formulation upon formulation later, they finally hit pay dirt: the softest, palest of pinks that makes the rooms feel like they are splashed in a rose-tinted sunset.

  • The Handegans pulled up 1950s-era penny tiles in the kitchen to discover original heart pine floors in middling condition; they salvaged what they could to repair floors elsewhere in the house and installed antique black-and-white marble tiles instead.

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  • A collection of 18th-century Italian portraits adds a flourish to the stair hall, with walls painted a subtle peach (Academy by Portola Paints). In the guest room beyond, a Woodard Weave rug pulls accents of red from the vintage toile curtains.

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“There is an easiness to living with antiques because if something is already a couple hundred years old, it doesn’t feel like it’s untouchable.”

Chelsea Handegan

Mounted on board, de Gournay’s “Monuments of Paris” wallpaper panel becomes an artful backdrop for an antique French daybed in daughter Hattie’s room. The bedding is from Chelsea Textiles.

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That glow gave Handegan the wherewithal to lean into a pared-down ethos for the furnishings. “I’m not sure it comes off this way, but I would probably classify myself as a minimalist. I don’t like a lot of casual clutter. I could easily live with very few things,” she says. “Then there’s the designer part of me that wants to have these layered beautiful rooms with stories and whatnots. Finding a middle ground is what I’m always after.” The mean she landed on is particularly golden: a smattering of the blue-chip and traditional (18th-century still lifes and portraits in gilt frames, a glimmering Venetian mirror, rosewood Regency dining chairs) cleverly mixed in with the more profane (earthbound jute rugs, a contemporary iron cocktail table by Corbin Cruise in a verdigris-like turquoise finish, crisply tailored upholstery) and juxtapositions like a homespun geranium in a terra-cotta pot placed casually on an antique Italian marble plinth.

Handegan worried that the built-in bookcase in the primary bedroom would feel too heavy, so she covered the walls in a cozy, tone-on-tone floral wallpaper from Colefax & Fowler. For added softness, she trimmed the canopy bed (from The Country Bed Shop) with a gauzy Otis Textile sheer and pom-pom fringe by Brimar. The painting is by Louise Camille Fenne, through Ann Long Fine Art.

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In the dining room, Handegan set off papier-mâché medallion busts she had long coveted from Casa Gusto in Palm Beach with velvet fabric panels and skirted tables to bracket the fireplace. “I wanted to keep them from being swallowed up by the grand walls. And since I didn’t want window treatments because I love the light so much, the panels and skirts bring some softness to the room,” she adds. And despite some initial trepidation, she gave the configurations plenty of air to breathe. “The home we lived in before was much more snug. I worried my furniture would make it feel like a dollhouse in here,” she says. “I mean, my dining table is a 48-incher meant for four people! The room could hold something much larger, but I don’t need a dining table for 10 people when we’re a family of three that sits down for breakfast and dinner every single day.”

Handegan, pictured, found the antique portrait at RT Facts in Connecticut. “It was already damaged, so we deemed it suitable for exterior use. Jack painted on a ‘frame’ in the same color as the shutters.” The tablecloth is made from a Nicholas Herbert fabric.

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Yep, you read that right: Despite the house’s formal layout and the provenance of its furnishings, it has proven to be ideal for a thoroughly modern family. “There is an easiness to living with antiques because if something is already a couple hundred years old, it doesn’t feel like it’s untouchable,” explains Handegan. “And the way the living room opens onto the dining room, it’s like having an open floor plan. It’s where Hattie does her homework, and where I work from home or read the newspaper at the end of the day. It’s a haven that has made a world of difference in the way we live.” Now doesn’t that sound beautiful? And pretty practical, too.

Handegan’s husband, Jack, is a classic car collector and dealer. “I never know what he’s going to drive home in,” says Handegan, noting that on the day of the photo shoot, he happened to arrive in a BMW that matched the shutters. The piazza—Charlestonian for “porch”—is intentionally sloped higher on the right side so rainwater doesn’t pool.

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