In the midst of COVID-19, a Columbia couple was undaunted when taking on the challenges of renovating a 100+ year old home in a protected historic district. The beautiful home of Alisha and Jordan Giles on Woodrow Street in Columbia’s historic Melrose Heights neighborhood stands as a testament to this couple’s vision, planning, and resilience.
Alisha and Jordan bought the house in 2019 with plans to renovate the former triplex into a single-family home. Drawing upon their professional backgrounds in real estate and investment, as well as their desire to establish a home for their future family, Alisha and Jordan purchased the property shortly after their engagement to be married.
Little did they know what awaited them in 2020. In addition to the myriad regulations and requirements that come with bringing a historic 1910 Craftsman bungalow back to life, the world was suddenly gripped by a global pandemic — with its health concerns, supply chain issues, and social distancing requirements — oh, and they were also planning their wedding.
“It was a lot for us to bite off,” says Jordan.
Stepping into the house as it stands today, it is difficult to imagine everything it took for this can-do couple to transform a once hodgepodge triplex into their now sleek and elegant home. Courtesy of dramatic 12-foot ceilings in the main living areas, the eye is irresistibly drawn upward by newly crafted architectural details, including a stately archway, a classic coffered ceiling, floor-to-ceiling cabinetry, and custom built-ins.
“We told our carpenter, ‘We want things to look historic, but at the same time, we still want them to be updated and modern,’” says Alisha.
Upon passing through the arch between the entryway and the living room, you see clearly that the updated and modern transformation of the home is complete.
“All of the work we did on this house was a true investment,” says Jordan. “New plumbing, new electrical, new framing, new mechanical — new everything. When we bought the house, it had drop ceilings. That was one of the things we knew we had to change. After tearing out the drop ceilings, we discovered we had these 12-foot ceilings.”
With the benefit of all that uncovered height, the Gileses were able to install a show-stopping feature that not every house can successfully carry: a coffered ceiling. Within the “fifth wall” above their living room, this classic architectural element delivers elegance and a sense of spaciousness.
From the ancient Greek word kophinos, the word coffer means “basket.” A coffered ceiling features a pattern of indentations or recesses in an overhead surface. Once constructed by crisscrossing heavy beams into geometric patterns, today’s coffered ceilings are often a less structural and more decorative feature that adds significant visual interest to a space.
Combined with their custom built-ins and thoroughly modern mantel with a wall-mounted electric fireplace, the Gileses’ living room juxtaposes classic and contemporary, resulting in a space that is at once elegant and comfortable.
A Tall Order
The true showpiece of this home, however, is the kitchen.
“We designed it and designed it and redesigned it. This kitchen was our baby. We wanted it to be welcoming and open,” says Alisha.
Of their newly installed floor-to-ceiling cabinets, Jordan says, “The ceilings were so tall, so that’s what we had to do to fill up the space. We originally thought about stopping the cabinets at about 10 feet, but then we had a gap — that’s why we added the soffit and brought that down another foot.”
Most homes built in the last 50 years have kitchen cabinets that are 32 or 36 inches tall, installed with a gap of 1-2 feet between the tops of the cabinets and the ceiling. Cabinets with these proportions are generally reachable to people standing on the floor; but, in recent years a trend has grown of homeowners and designers running kitchen cabinets floor to ceiling. As a bold design choice that works for both historical as well as more modern kitchen styles, floor-to-ceiling cabinetry also maximizes otherwise unused space, creating the benefit of additional storage.
Another innovative feature of the Gileses’ kitchen is their hidden walk-in pantry. What looks like a standard tall cabinet on the outside is actually a concealed entrance to a separate room off the kitchen. This tucked-away pantry not only functions as a dedicated food storage area with ample shelving, but it can also serve as a staging area for caterers … and as a hideaway spot for busy party hosts to catch their breath.
“We love to entertain,” says Alisha, “and we decided that instead of always having to rent an event space, we should design our home so that we can host events here.
“This past year, we hosted Thanksgiving for about 40 people. We hired caterers and rented tables that we set up in the backyard to dine outdoors,” she says. “And having all of this countertop space really works for parties because we can put food on the island and on the counters. This kitchen is a host’s dream.”
In addition to their gift for party planning, these consummate hosts also designed their home to be as comfortable for overnight stays as a five-star hotel. A separate wing of Alisha and Jordan’s house features three well-appointed guest rooms, each with its own en suite bathroom with subway-tiled walls, penny tiles on the floor, and granite countertops on the vanity.
Restoration and Preservation
As part of historic Melrose Heights, the Gileses’ Woodrow Street home is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places and is protected as part of an architectural conservation district by the City of Columbia. Loosely bounded by Millwood Avenue, Butler Street, Woodrow Street, and Trenholm Road, Melrose Heights is known for its diverse architectural forms and styles. Many people settle in historic districts because of their character, and in 2016, the Historic Melrose District was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its illustration of the development of an early Columbia neighborhood. This national program coordinates and supports public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.
In order to keep the character of the neighborhood, properties within the Historic Melrose District, which includes Melrose Heights, Oaklawn, and Fairview, are governed by guidelines to ensure the preservation of a building’s character-defining features while accommodating an efficient contemporary use through rehabilitation.
As explained on the Historic Melrose website, “Rehabilitation is a practical approach to historic preservation. It is the process of repairing or altering a historic building while retaining its historic features. It represents a compromise between remodeling, which offers no sensitivity to the historic features of a building, and restoration, which is a more accurate but costly approach to repair, replacement, and maintenance. Rehabilitation guidelines are limited to the review of exterior elements visible from the public right-of-way.”
“So with this being a historical home, we weren’t able to change the exterior of the house. We weren’t able to change any of the exterior doors, so all the exterior doors are still original,” says Jordan. “We didn’t know a lot about the process when we first came into it, but our representative with the city’s planning division was very responsive and helped us along the way.”
Fortunately, opportunities are available to help offset the challenges that come with rehabilitating a historic home. While any exterior updates on the house have to be approved by the City of Columbia’s Design/Development Review Commission, Melrose Heights homeowners can apply for special tax incentives and other opportunities, including the Bailey Bill.
Alisha and Jordan’s home qualified for local Bailey Bill certification. Requirements include being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, having Columbia city landmark status, historic designation by the Richland County Conservation Commission, or being at least 50 years old and demonstrating historic significance.
Bailey Bill certification allows the property owner to avoid local property tax payments on the increased value resulting from eligible renovations. The amount can be significant, especially when combined with other available incentives, serving as an effective catalyst that encourages the rehabilitation of historic buildings.
Looking to the Future
After rising to the challenges of a pandemic-era home renovation and their pandemic-era wedding, Alisha and Jordan are not likely to slow down anytime soon. As a licensed realtor, Alisha is anticipating another busy year professionally in yet another unprecedented year in the world of real estate, and as a couple, the Gileses are planning to host many more family and friend gatherings in their home.
While the details of the next phase of their lives together are still being drafted, Alisha and Jordan are looking forward to building their big, bright new future upon the solid materials provided by the past.