By Danielle Wong Moores | Photos by Michael Nixon, Meadors Inc.
Built in the 1930s, the storefront in downtown Aiken South Carolina had once housed a Buick dealership. More than 80 years later, it stood empty, worn down and neglected.
But Caleb and Faris Connor saw past all that: They saw a home.
“We just really wanted to be downtown, but we really wanted a yard,” said Caleb, an attorney in Aiken’s Connor & Connor law firm. He and Faris had long been searching for the right home, something historic that they could also put their stamp on. “We were like, man, this would be perfect.”
But at that point, they were only six months in on a two-year prepaid lease on a condominium in downtown Aiken. So another couple purchased the property— but after more than a year of doing nothing to it, they put it back on the market. “At that point, we snapped it up,” said Caleb.
Their friends thought they were crazy. “We had fallen in love with it, so the fact that it came back around was really cool,” said Caleb. It was meant to be— “and it really did feel that way.”
Making the Space
On April 20, 2019, Caleb posted a photo on Instagram: himself, Realtor Nancy Cerra and architect Jeremy Tate from the Charleston, S.C., architecture and design firm Meadors, which specializes in historic preservation, standing on the Buick building’s second floor, an open space with gleaming heart pine floors and rusty red exposed brick walls. “Excited about making this amazing space our new home!” was the caption.
The Connors had connected with Meadors through a chance recommendation from Realtor Summers Pendarvis, who had met with the firm during the bidding process for the renovation of Edgefield’s Plantation House Hotel. Tate gave them the confidence they were looking for, that they could make their idea of a home inside the old storefront, quirks and all, a reality. “His experience in Charleston with all of those old homes gave him the experience that we needed,” Faris said.
Caleb and Faris had a strong vision for the renovation and spent the first few months sketching their ideas on paper. “We drew it all out— really the whole thing,” said Caleb, who still has the original sketches in his office. Meadors— along with the builder the Connors selected, Aiken’s Cooper Home & Stable— made a few practical tweaks, and the first hammer fell the week after Labor Day.
The construction moved rapidly, even with the interruption of COVID-19. During that time, the Connors lived in their farmhouse in Edgefield— an 1,100-square-foot home they’d rebuilt after a fire, with just one bathroom for the couple and their four children— and commuted to Aiken for school, work and to check on the progress of the Buick house. “Every day that I’d come in to see things, it was like one of those home reno shows where I’d get a big reveal: I’d come in and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so cool,’” said Faris. “There was never a time that I came in when I wasn’t in love with whatever I was seeing.”
Although the home was mostly complete by the end of May, the Connors weren’t able to move in officially until July because of a delay with attaching the upstairs deck. That gave them time to slowly furnish the home. “So, when we finally moved in, everything was in,” said Caleb.
“We just walked in with our toothbrushes,” added Faris.
Home at Last
Today, the old storefront stands proud with its freshly painted white brick exterior. Modern metal and glass lanterns flank the polished wood door, decorated with a wily English fox knocker, sourced by Caleb from a Charleston antique store.
As you step inside, the immediate sense is of light and air. Four large windows open the front of the home, and the back is one immense glass wall, crisscrossed with metal, with patio doors leading into a gracious formal garden area with a fountain. Adjacent is a grassy lawn where gymnast Eliza Faris, the Connors’ 12-year-old daughter, often practices.
Faris gives Caleb the credit for flexing his creative muscle on the architectural features and design of the home. “I have a very keen interest in architecture and design,” admitted Caleb. “I’ve always had a project going on. I need a creative outlet, and I tend to do it with architecture”— including redoing their first home in Aiken’s Houndslake North, their Edgefield farmhouse and two law offices.
Meadors was responsible for proposing and securing most of the interior fixtures, such as lighting, flooring, tile and hardware. Meanwhile, Faris focused on the soft touches. The Connors worked with Sue Shannon at downtown Aiken’s Nandina Home & Design for interior furnishings and decorating. Most of the furniture belonged to the Connors— Caleb is an avid collector who grew up going to antique stores with his mother and grandmother— but many upholstered and other soft pieces are new.
In the formal dining area on the left, your eye is immediately drawn to a large abstract painting, a style that Faris favors, which was found for them by Lisa Castles, a friend and the owner of York Cottage Antiques, located right next door. Across from the dining area, velvety teal chairs sit in a group of four, set off by leopard-print pillows and a collection of Asian-influenced décor, a favorite of Caleb’s.
Beyond that is the living room, with neutral sofas and leather armchairs softened by floral pillows. “I didn’t want the downstairs to feel too masculine,” said Faris, whose choice of fabric mirrors the florals in the bedding she chose for their master bedroom.
Above the fireplace— which Caleb had put in— are two paintings of the home’s exterior by Aiken artist Jane Keisler. “I was always impressed with her architectural paintings … so of course when we did this, I called and said ‘Would you consider doing our house?’ And she was honored and elated to,” said Caleb. The two pieces are studies that will eventually go elsewhere in the house, as Keisler is working on a final abstract painting of the streetscape that will be the fireplace’s eventual focal point.
The kitchen area is just adjacent, with a stunning island overlaid with a marble “waterfall,” an effect that the Connors saw during a trip to Ireland last summer and wanted to incorporate in their new home. Four leather-topped stools make it a perfect spot for a casual breakfast for the kids before they go to school.
Beyond the kitchen and living space is another dining area, where the family more often comes together for dinner. While Caleb and Faris had strong ideas of what they wanted to create within the blank slate, this table, he says with a laugh, “was the biggest challenge…But [our architect] gave us some good advice. They said, just don’t worry about it until you get in and then feel it out…and it ended up just being right here, under the light.”
Next is another conversation space, which Caleb describes as the “men’s seating area,” in contrast to the “women’s area” with the velvet green chairs. “[There] we have a little more feminine touch, and it’s more masculine back here,” he says. The space’s dark leather Chesterfield sofa was the final piece of furniture found for the house. “We needed something small,” said Caleb. “[And] we were looking for a Chesterfield sofa,” added Faris.
Castles happened to post a photo of a Chesterfield sofa on Instagram: “Handsome and cute … the perfect combination.” Faris was out of town, so she forwarded the photo to Caleb. In the meantime, Caleb had already connected with Castles. “We got it last week,” said Caleb, just in time for his 40th birthday bash, their first big event in their new home.
Throughout the space, the Connors worked to keep original touches, such as the decorative pressed tin ceiling and exposed brick walls upstairs, which they limewashed to create a lighter palette but retain the old look and feel. Upstairs, they also chose to leave exposed the original metal reinforcing designed to protect the building from earthquakes. The curved poles wind their way across some of the bedroom ceilings and closets— even through the shower shared by daughters Ryals, 10, and Clark, 9. While not original, Caleb also sourced old barn wood from Augusta’s Highland Millworks to line the coffered ceiling above the men’s seating area as well as that of the downstairs powder room.
Upstairs, the 3,900-square-foot home has four bedrooms, three baths and another casual seating area where the family can watch television together in the evenings. The original plan called for cutting in windows, as both neighboring buildings are only one floor, but when fire codes intervened, Caleb worked with the architect to redraw the layout to maximize the existing windows and two original skylights, ensuring each room had natural light.
Faris sourced the custom bedding and blackout window coverings in the master bedroom from Nandina— the blackout is essential, as the view from the bed is through another glass wall similar to the one downstairs. That wall previously held a massive sliding metal door, which is now in 6-year-old son Smith’s room, serving as a headboard— an inspired idea of Caleb’s that took six men to move and install. The remaining bedding for the children’s rooms features florals and vibrant colors from sources like Pottery Barn and Serena & Lily, thoughtfully mixed and styled by Faris.
But beyond the aesthetics, there were other practical considerations. The floor downstairs was raised, both to give it more of the feel of stepping up into a home and to allow room to run ductwork and electric cables without damaging the original pressed tin ceiling. Caleb also made sure to design in a pantry, additional storage and large closets for every bedroom. “Another great thing about this place is that …there’s no attic, there’s no basement, but we do have ample storage,” he said. “We were trying to be mindful of that as we went through.”
In addition, Caleb reused the building’s original, beautifully distressed wood doors for the home’s laundry and utility rooms, both tucked off the men’s seating area. The immense laundry has a large oval cast-iron sink— perfect for all the stains that come with having four children— as well as a set of cubbies where the children can stash bookbags, extracurricular bags and all their shoes. The utility room has an extra refrigerator and a feature insisted on by Faris— a desk where she can work and stay organized and where the children can also complete homework or have tutoring.
The Connors planned to build a home— and that’s how it has felt, from the minute they moved in. “There’s nothing that I don’t like about it,” said Faris, who admits she worried about having regrets. “But I don’t have anything like that … . Between Caleb and the architects and the designers and the builders, everyone just did an amazing job.”
“Everyone says you have to build two houses,” said Caleb. “But we were really lucky.”
“It’s exactly what we were hoping for.”
Appears in the October 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.