Christina Butler is a preservation badass. She writes about historic preservation. She teaches it. She renovates. And she lives in a modern home built to feel like something a skilled Charleston tradesman would have lived in 250 years ago.
“This house is what happens when two history nerds find each other,” she said while outlining the history of the home that her historian husband, Nic Butler, designed and she directed during construction. “We did the flooring, trim, painting, tile work, cabinetry, hung all of the doors and worked on some of the exterior.”
They decided to build a home that a 1750s craftsman would have had because they love the history and style associated with the Georgian era.
“It’s a time where everything was handcrafted,” she said. “The minimalism of that period really makes the craftsmanship pop.”
From the time she was three, Christina Butler knew she wanted to build things. “It’s in my blood.” She remembers watching the PBS show This Old House with Bob Vila as a toddler. “My dad had it on, and I was enthralled.” He later videotaped shows so she could re-watch episodes.
In her native Ohio, Butler went to trade school, instead of traditional high school, to learn to build stuff. She started college to learn civil engineering, but something wasn’t right. Then on a vacation to Charleston, she stumbled upon a historic preservation program at the College of Charleston and knew she had found a place to attend college. She dumped civil engineering and moved here. And she hasn’t really looked back.
In the years since, she worked at a local library, became friends with Nic (now the library’s popular historian) and later got married. In between, she got a master’s degree in American history, worked in construction, started a restoration company and did some serious preservation consulting. When the American College of Building Arts asked her to teach historic preservation, she was in heaven.
“It’s fun to teach at a program that I would have gone to had it existed,” she said recently. “I’m teaching to my tribe.”
Now a professor, she’s so enthusiastic that she admits she might have bitten off a little too much this semester. She’s teaching three sections of historic preservation to sophomores, two sections of something else to freshmen, one senior capstone class and a section of the introduction to historic preservation at the College of Charleston. (Yep, that’s seven classes.)
The Butlers’ dark blue East Side home on Hampden Court is a three-bedroom, 1,482 square-foot rectangular box with two floors and an unfinished ground level that serves as a workshop and provides storage. The first living floor of the single house includes a front sitting room offset by a stairwell, a dining room and a kitchen in the rear. Upstairs are three bedrooms and a bathroom.
Period pieces of furniture, mostly faithful reproductions, give the place the feel of an old home. But what’s striking is the brightly colored trim that surrounds each room. Walls are white, because paint was expensive in the 1750s.
“What was typical in the middle 18th century was to leave the wall plaster white and put the paint on the trim,” she said. “The aesthetic with the white walls and bright trim would have been a middle-class tradesperson’s house.” Often carpenters, like Butler, would have trim at the ceiling because they had access to the wood and could add it easily, she said.
The Butlers’ kitchen features a bright yellow door and trim. The living room has trim painted a coffee-milk tan. Both colors are mineral-based. The original pigment for blue, the color of the outside of the home, may have come from lapis, while the bedroom’s bright red trim — dragon’s blood red — likely stemmed from iron oxide.
“People think of 18th century colors as really drab, but before the sun bleached them, they were really popping colors,” Butler said.
Since moving into the home in 2015, Butler has kept busy with lots of projects.
“I built traditional shutters for every window outside,” she said. “That took forever because I used hand tools.” Over time, she plans to add more trim to rooms in the house and add art that’s reflective of the Georgian period.
Some of the work will be done in the ground-level workshop, a place filled with old planes, clamps, saws and augers. When asked whether the workshop would have been authentic, Butler admitted it was about a foot higher than it might have been 250 years ago, but the house would have been raised then — because Charleston floods.
“You wouldn’t finish that space because it would flood. It’s Charleston.”
Butler should know. In 2020, she literally wrote the 288-page book on the history of Charleston flooding. Published by the University of South Carolina Press, Lowcountry at High Tide: A History of Flooding, Drainage, and Reclamation in Charleston, South Carolina is a reminder that Charleston has always been vulnerable to flooding and, in the days of rising sea levels, now faces a major threat.
In a review, Martha Zierden, curator of historical archeology at The Charleston Museum, wrote, “Christina Butler describes a growing but low-lying city where the ground surface was constantly in flux. The filling and draining that characterized Charleston from its earliest days had both short-term and long-range consequences for the livability of the peninsula, and for the archeological record of these processes. Some may surprise you.”
When asked about lessons learned from building a 1750s-style house in 2015, Butler offered this, which applies to public policy as much as it does a home:
“You get what you pay for. When you cut corners and do things cheaply, it will cost you in the long run. You use garbage for fill (material), it’s going to sink. My dad always said, ‘There’s the cheap way and the right way.’ ”
It’s pretty obvious which one Christina Butler is going to keep doing.
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