Among the Wooded Hills
No need to travel to New England for a lesson on colonial history. Just sneak a peek with us inside this unique Charleston home.
When you pull onto the gravel drive in front of Jean Miller’s home, you are transported to 18th century New England. Situated on more than four acres of prized flat land in the tony South Hills neighborhood in Charleston is a house where Longfellow himself would feel quite at home—especially given that a replica of the Wayside Inn’s tavern bar is tucked into the basement. With its gambrel roofline, this clapboard-sheathed saltbox resembles a living history museum. In fact, the home was built with salvaged material from dismantled homes in New England and is a replica of the Ashley House, a historic home built in 1734 that now serves as a museum in Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Jean and James Miller built their home at the corner of Bridge Road and Loudon Heights Road in 1978. “My husband was the only survivor in an airplane crash, and he had to have several operations. He realized how short life is and wanted me to fulfill my dreams, so he told me that I could build my dream house.” So Jean did. It took three years to design and two years to build. She says, “I always wanted an 18th century house, and I wanted it to look 18th century. I didn’t want a 20th century interpretation of an 18th century house.”
Jean studied the period assiduously and incorporated as many period details from the Ashley House as she could, beginning with the doorway and the distinctive elaborate molding surround. The windows in the door even have hand-blown crown or bullseye glass. The central hallway, typical of the period, pays homage to another historic home. “I went with my friend to the Hyland House in Guilford, Connecticut. It was built in the 17th century and it had a beautiful stairway. I loved it and said, ‘I want that stairway in my home,’” she recalls.
To the right of the hallway is the formal parlor. Distinctive recessed shell cabinets anchor the fireplace and are painted a colonial green that is typical of the period. To the left of the hallway is a large, light-infused study with built-in cabinetry that once contained four full-size desks.
All of the windows in the home were custom made and include pocket shutters that retract into the wall. The flooring is wide plank Northern Pine. “Southern Pine has too many knots in it,” Jean says. The four-story home has 11 fireplaces, 10 in the house and one in the apartment above the standalone four-car garage. The kitchen is home to the grandest of the fireplaces. At 9-by-5 feet it is true to the period, with hanging pots, a weighted pulley and cord system that served as a mechanism to turn the spit, and a swinging pole, which was used to dry laundry.
An antique settle, a high-backed bench that was created in medieval ages to provide shelter from drafty rooms, sits in front of the fireplace in the kitchen as if it has been there for 300 years. “This spot in the kitchen is strictly candlelit,” Jean points out. “I wanted one spot in my house that had no electricity.”
The expansive kitchen has open shelving and lower cabinetry, and a wall of high windows looks out onto a screened-in porch and the courtyard beyond. The home’s exposed timber framing with mortise-and-tenon joints continues in the cozy den where even the plasterwork is reminiscent of the time period. “A man came to do my woodwork, and I told him what I wanted the plaster to look like. He asked, ‘Why do you want it gray, and why do you want it rough?’ I said, ‘Have you ever been in a 100-year-old New England house? That’s what I want here.’”
Jean’s favorite room is the dining room, and at 23-by-20 feet, it easily accommodates her 9-foot table. “Nobody notices my Windsor chairs, but I have arms on every chair. It’s unusual. Men don’t sit at a dining room table if they aren’t comfortable.”
The 8,232-square-foot home contains five bedrooms. These aren’t your typical bedrooms—they are very large and each has its own fireplace. The 29-by-18-foot upstairs bedroom contains historic paneling from a house in Massachusetts and incorporates a 16th century shell cupboard.
At every turn there’s a captivating detail, like the built-in chest in the hallway or the period-perfect light sconces. But there are also nods to modern conveniences. There’s a large laundry room on the second floor and the home has four and a half bathrooms, a luxury our colonial ancestors would have surely appreciated.
The basement contains a replica of the bar in the tavern of the Wayside Inn, the oldest tavern in the country and the inspiration for Longfellow’s famous poem. “When I was at the Wayside Inn, I took a tape measure and measured every detail. I think they thought I was crazy, but I love this bar,” Jean says. “Do you know why they are called bars? It’s because the original taverns had vertical bars like a jail, protecting the alcohol. It was locked up every night.”
History abounds at every corner, and even more so outside, where two original log structures stand adjacent to the home. “When we bought this property there was an old Victorian farmhouse on it, and we needed to tear it down,” Jean says. “But when we started removing the siding, we discovered that there were two log homes underneath the façade. We couldn’t tear it down.” They painstakingly removed the Victorian façade and protected the treasure beneath. The Millers found out the two-story log home was once the homestead of a 300-acre farm and believed to be one of the oldest buildings in the area. A summer kitchen also exists on the property, and both buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Jean says it is now time for the house to have a new owner. “I hope someone buys this house and appreciates all the history and all the details. I hope they love it as much as I do.”