The Perfect Backdrop

Stepping inside the Cotters’ artful renovation

Robert Clark

Friends climbing the front steps of Elizabeth and Les Cotter’s Lake Katherine home can hardly fathom that the flood that devastated Columbia in October 2015 submerged the stairs, as well as the entire first floor of the house, under almost 3 feet of water.

The couple’s odyssey began at 5:30 that fateful Sunday morning when a neighbor phoned Elizabeth to tell her that the water was rising on their street. “At that point, the water had reached the tops of the tires of the cars in the driveway,” explains Les. “It was raging.”

Believing the water would rush into the house, Elizabeth and Les spent the next four hours working to try to save family possessions. “We carried family photos, paintings, and even rugs upstairs, and put as much furniture as we could on top of other furniture,” says Elizabeth. “We were so fortunate to be home that weekend.”

After waving on the first rescue boat so that it could rescue neighbors with children who lived down their street, Elizabeth, Les, and their two dogs took advantage of the next boats, which fought challenging currents to deliver the family to high ground.

Two days later, when they were finally able to re-enter their home, Elizabeth and Les discovered a worse mess than they had imagined. “We were advised to wear masks and gloves just to walk in,” says Les. “It was so wet, muddy, and humid inside … the mold had already started to grow.”

The couple spent the next two weeks filling dumpster after dumpster with ruined possessions, moldy chunks of drywall, and trash. Reconstruction experts informed the Cotters that to completely remediate the damage and eradicate the mold they would need to rip out the floors, walls, counters, stairway, and cupboard 3 feet above the house’s interior high-water mark. The amount of work was overwhelming.

As they toiled, friends, family members, and teams of volunteers showed up with food, drinks, and strong muscles to help clear out the mess. “We were overwhelmed by the support we received,” says Les. “The Lord was looking out for us.”

Now, three years later, the Cotters are back in the house they love and could not be more grateful. “There was a time when we weren’t even sure it was fixable,” says Elizabeth. “So many people were far, far worse off than we were. We are so thankful to have a home that is safe and healthy.”

It is also beautiful, starting with the front door, which was not just replaced but re-cased to accommodate a door with a graceful arch at the top and two sidelights that flood the foyer with sunlight. “The door faces west, so it was already fairly beat up from the sun, but the flood warped it so badly that it was beyond salvaging,” says Elizabeth. “We needed the light, and the arch is interesting.”

The couple also chose gas lanterns for the front porch, which add a soft, flickering glow to the entranceway. “It never occurred to us that they’re decorative and don’t throw off any usable light,” Elizabeth says with a laugh. “A week after we moved in, we had to have a regular light installed on the ceiling of the porch so we could see our way down the steps.”

The kitchen received the lion’s share of the visible changes to the house. In July 2015, just three months prior to the flood, Elizabeth and Les had just completed a full renovation of the kitchen. Fortunately, the Cotters were able to duplicate much of the work, which they had loved.

The post-flood project started with a reconfiguration of the kitchen and powder room, which gave the Cotters a large pantry in the kitchen and a full bath on the first floor. With a color scheme of sand and white, the bathroom’s walls are covered in wallpaper with a subtle pattern that resembles marble. In the shower, oversized subway tiles with the uneven texture of stone give the space a sauna-like feel; a decorative marble border adds a luxe touch. A double-framed mirror that is both classic and modern adds a hint of sage green to the palette.

That soft green makes a second appearance around the corner in the kitchen, where it serves as the background for wallpaper featuring a sheer white botanical pattern. Beyond adding color to the kitchen, the wallpaper unifies the large space, which meanders around a corner to a nook that is not entirely visible from the main entrance to the kitchen. Although the home’s builder probably envisioned the nook as a breakfast area, the Cotters creatively recast the space instead as a functional pass through; on one side, a large antique sideboard topped with a flowing houseplant adds warmth, while on the other, a set of sleek shelves and cupboards houses a wet bar, glassware, and decorative items. Behind a pair of cupboard doors is Les’ coffee station.

“Les loves coffee and likes to have all his equipment in one place,” says Elizabeth as she pulls out a large drawer filled with various coffees and coffee implements. “The coffee maker stays out of sight behind this little cupboard, and the coffee is just below, in a pullout drawer, so he can see everything he needs. It’s so convenient for him but always out of the way.”

Another useful, out of the way piece is the dog gate, which is actually a mini pocket door. “Our dogs are getting old and sometimes we need to keep them in the kitchen,” explains Elizabeth. “This is so convenient. I wish we would have thought of it years ago!”

As with the other rooms in the house, the kitchen’s details make the difference. The houseplant sits in a rustic, hand-glazed pot, and the mirror behind the sideboard is framed in a whitewashed frame that has been dressed up with a thin band of gold on the inner wall. The sink in the wet bar is hammered silver; the sconces, which are set into the mirror’s frame, are wrought iron. Instead of typical pantry doors, Elizabeth found a set of barn door shutters, distressed them slightly, and hung them on wrought-iron sliding rails, allowing full access to the pantry without a door blocking the room. Even the hood over the stove is part of the scene: crafted from hammered, ever-so-slightly distressed dark-grey zinc, it is as much sculpture as it is workhorse. The herringbone marble subway tiles that form the backsplash, as well as the stove’s ruby-red knobs, complete the picture.

The room also features a bit of funky fun, such as the calf-hair stools that line the bar. “I’m so glad we were able to save these,” says Elizabeth. “I adore them.” The couple also added an antelope-patterned rug to a small den off the foyer and another one going up the stairs. In both cases, the classic animal pattern serves as a neutral foundation for the rest of the space, albeit a neutral with personality. “It  adds a lot of interest without competing with anything,” says Elizabeth. “I’ve really enjoyed it.”

The dining room was also completely redone after the flood. Here, the Cotters have mixed centuries-old family pieces, including a curved sideboard and a chest and dining room table, with contemporary touches that include a leopard-patterned rug and curvy white chairs. Accessories — a gleaming silver tea set, hammered candlesticks, molten crystal lamps, and traditional silver candlesticks — are also an artful mix of classic and modernity.

Elizabeth and Les are happy to be able to display and use any of their dark wood furniture. “The water horribly warped all the wood pieces in the dining room,” says Elizabeth. “They’ve all been in the family for generations, so we were heartbroken.” Fortunately, they heard about a restorer in Spartanburg, Alan Decredico, who specializes in repairing water damaged furniture. After months of work, he was able to bring each piece back to its original beauty.

“We are thankful and grateful for so much,” says Les. “One thing a tragedy like this teaches you is how to focus on what’s really important and eternal, which, in our case, is God, family, and service to others. Everything else can just float away, and you realize you’re just fine.”