“Warmer, lighter, brighter, more pleasant” are all words that the Howsers use to describe their abode, post-historic flood. It is not that it was without cozy, inviting ambiance pre-flood, points out long-time friend and Pulliam Morris interior designer, Carol Cheever Hamilton, but the devastating effects of the few feet of water in the home created an opportunity to “rebound, rebuild, recreate and re-imagine.”
Of course, Polly and Dave Howser were not dreaming of overhauling their home on the morning of Oct. 5, 2015. Polly says Dave was up and checking the weather, but she was snug in her bed. She says she really thought their home was safe from the rising water, but due to the nearby canal fed from Gill’s Creek, there was hardly a home on Portobello Road that was not affected.
Polly says the most terrifying moment that Sunday morning was when the water began to bubble up through the vents. They watched their three cars float away, then someone in a boat opened the front door and water rushed in. The couple climbed in and left the home they built in 1978 when their three children, now grown, were very young.
Although many residents of South Carolina were forced to tear down their homes after the devastating flood, Polly and Dave’s home was spared. The three major factors that saved their family home were firstly that the foundation was built extremely well initially, according to Contractor Dwight Williams of Williams Custom Builders. Secondly, Dwight was called in immediately to assess damage. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, no time was wasted before hiring Servpro®, which specializes in water damage mitigation.
“Servpro was able to salvage so much,” says Polly. “Every item of furniture that exited the door was wiped off with a special solution by the Servpro employees. They told us that we experienced a stage-three flood, meaning there was a chance of contamination and bacteria. Because they jumped on it so quickly, we lost much less than we could have. They knew what they were doing.”
Cabinets and furnishings were taken out to be cleaned, and if possible, restored. All the flooring had to be removed. Only one area rug was completely lost; the others were taken for professional cleaning. Drywall was torn out at least three feet up, down to the studs. The complete underneath of the house was ripped out and moisture barriers and sump pumps had to be installed. Dale Wood, who Polly says was the quintessential handy man, was invaluable during the arduous process.
Friends, family and strangers worked daily to assist the family in the rebuilding process. Polly says that for weeks, someone always showed up with lunch for them. Polly, along with her daughter, Rebecca Howser, a trained interior designer and now a realtor with Home Advantage Realty, Carol, Dwight and architect Robert Kennedy came up with a renovation plan for the home after moisture levels were contained. This process took five months and layers of procedures and removal, but not once did the Howsers consider giving up and finding a home elsewhere.
“This is where our memories are. We love the layout of this house, and the blessing was that much needed to be updated anyway,” says Polly.
Carol, who had worked with Polly and Rebecca over many years regarding furnishings and design for the home, says, “This gave us the opportunity to really soul search the house and the process. We decided we would blend old with new and give the home a fresh feel. They were able to realize dreams about the interior after 40 years of living in it.”
A bonus to the process, admits Polly, was seeing two people she loves, her daughter and her friend, collaborating on the interior.
One of the most drastic changes was in the flooring, which went from mainly standard-size oak throughout with Mexican tile in the breakfast and kitchen areas, to an artisan-finished, hand-crafted, custom, wide-plank floor with a natural finish. “That change was huge,” says Carol. “The new flooring gave the home a European flair … a new old-world feel.”
Polly is a self-prescribed “Francophile,” having visited France many times and treasuring a collection of finds from the country in a kitchen display space; therefore, a friendly, yet sophisticated European ambiance suited her tastes perfectly.
Carol says the goal was to maintain the classical foundation theme of the downstairs spaces, but to make them current. Another focus was, in her words, “textured, tailored and timeless.” They elevated the doorway heights and expanded the entryways into rooms. “Robert really helped and guided in the process of opening up the downstairs,” says Polly.
The kitchen was updated a few years back, so they did not change as much; however, the cabinetry and most of the appliances had to be replaced. Polly is a self-taught cook and enjoys creating and pairing in the kitchen, so it was essential for the kitchen to be back to working order after the flood. Unfortunately, countertops and back splashes could not be saved, as ripping out the bottom cabinets damaged them. However, the upside was that those were also lightened to complement the new, lighter look of the home. A white mosaic marble back splash and white quartz countertops replaced the black ones.
In fact, post-flood resulted in an out-with-the-dark, in-with-the-light mindset overall, says Carol. The trim was painted Arcadia White and walls Import Ivory — hues by Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore. Polly says the interior needed painting anyway; the flood just forced the issue.
“After living in a home for a while, people tend to know when their homes need to be painted, but they put it off because it is such an undertaking,” says Polly. “Here we are, more than 18 months after the flood, and things are still needing to be painted. But what a difference paint makes.”
“It just really freshened and brightened every space,” agrees Carol.
Throughout the renovated interior is what Polly says is the power of white. “Gone are our dark color days!” she says with a laugh. An entryway sitting area, that was originally a dining room with a closed door and red grass cloth walls, as well as paintings and upholstery that were primarily red tones, are now opened and lightened entirely. The walls are adorned with a Venetian hand-finished wallpaper; one whole wall showcases an antiqued mirror. And a natural zebra grass cloth was chosen for the entryway.
Polly and Dave lived in an apartment for seven months, and then resided primarily in the upstairs of their home until November 2016 before the downstairs became somewhat livable again. By this past spring, the renovation was almost completed except for some finishing touches.
Because so much was saved from the flood, Carol and Rebecca were able to coordinate many of the home furnishings and accessories that had sentimental value to Polly and Dave. Polly says she has never been interested in a matchy-matchy look; she wants to be able to look around her home and know where things came from.
“The pieces in our home need to tell the story of our lives. When people walk into my home, I just want them to be able to feel that it reflects who we are,” she says.
“The home should reflect the home owners, and this home does reflect Polly and Dave,” says Carol.
The flood also forced purging. “It made us re-evaluate what we really needed. It wrenches some people to let go of stuff, but I’m not one of those people,” says Polly.
“What resulted,” adds Carol, “is a much cleaner, less cluttered look.”
The dining room was most transformed. Carol explains that it was darker and more formal pre-flood. Traditional Chippendale chairs were replaced with linen-covered, white-washed chairs, and simple drapes now hang on the windows. There is no rug and no chandelier. Carol adds that the room is more inviting and user-friendly, pointing out that gone are the days of stuffy dining rooms behind closed doors that are only used a few times a year.
Polly says the changes in her home have made her feel more like a homebody. “It’s heart-warming to sit in the sitting room, look around, see into other rooms from here and enjoy the things I’m familiar with around me,” says Polly.
Ironically, one of the focal points in the sitting room is a beautiful painting of a creek by a Russian artist. Even though it resembles Gill’s Creek, she purchased it long ago because it reminded her of a creek near her home in East Tennessee. She says no matter what the flood did to their home because of the breaching of Gill’s Creek, the painting will always elicit emotions of peace and enjoyment — not anxiety.
“There is not a day that goes by that I am not frustrated and sad for all those people who were affected by the flood and who are still dealing with the consequences of it,” says Polly. “It was life changing, but there have been positives because of it as well. When it storms terribly like it did recently and there is flooding around the city, yes, I worry a little, and I ask myself, ‘Is irony going to blow the roof off this house?’ But this is our home.”
Plus, she says she agrees with Dave when he confesses: “I’ve always liked our home but never as much as now.”