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Features - August 2009
How one Georgian transforms Tybee Island ‘dumps’ into ‘darlings’
Fish Camp cottage is the quintessential dollhouse, tarted up in a heavenly blue inspired by morning glories blooming in its garden beneath shutters pierced with stars.
A wooden slab illuminated on the side of this Tybee Island retreat, less than 10 miles from Savannah. pokes fun at its humble beginnings. The sign reads: “Cottage - noun. A small, simple often crude dwelling usually only one story.”
It’s hard to imagine this enchanting getaway, whose lime green lounger has graced the cover of Cottage Living magazine, was once a drab 670-square-foot fishing shack collapsing into itself. No contractor would touch Fish Camp with a 10-foot pole.
Local preservationist Jane Coslick, who stalked the property from her bicycle for five years, was the exception. While others couldn’t look past the rotted front porch, a refrigerator sinking into the floor and jalousie windows permanently ajar, Coslick envisioned weekend fish fries facing Horse Pen Creek and salty summer nights unwinding to the sound of banana and palm trees swaying in the breeze.
“It was like a fairyland,” she recalls.
Coslick’s perspective was not so far-fetched. A growing number of professional renovators in Georgia now specialize in the tastes of “cottage people”—those who relish the uncomplicated life. Beginning in the late 19th century, seasonal cottage communities sprung up near beaches, mountains, lakes and springs to cater to ruffled city dwellers who sought the curative power of water and fresh air.
In the last decade, “the revival of the cottage can only be attributed to people seeking a more authentic experience and perhaps a return to a simpler time,” says Bob Ciucevich, a Savannah historic preservation consultant. Once snubbed by builders clamoring for vacant lots, rehabbed cottages are now seen as moneymakers.
After all, the location can’t be beat, and who can resist darling names like Surf Puppy, Key Lime Parrot and The Shrimp?
Coslick is self-taught and favors organic materials. She claims she can work within a range of budgets and is staying busy even in this moribund housing market. Her style exudes a funky, beachy vibe that manages to err on the side of tasteful (not tacky). Passersby say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The more you know, the less you need
Bold stripes paired with polka dots or tropical prints. A denim loveseat worn in all the right places. Spanish Mediterranean cabinets offset by orange countertops.
“It’s like putting on a party dress for these little boring houses,” says Coslick.
While it may sound like she’s borrowing a page from the “What Not to Wear” playbook, Coslick achieves a polished yet casual look, says Jan Huffman, who hired Coslick to design three of her cottages on Tybee Island.
“People have tried to copy her, of course,” notes Huffman, recalling an unfortunate incident of yellow-and-white striped shutters plopped on a turquoise house. “It will always be a shade off.”
Coslick will take a theme and then follow it to the ends of the Earth. Huffman’s Flip Flop cottage, for instance, sports flip-flop patterns shimmying up pillows and lampshades, plastered on washcloths and dangling from ceiling fans.
After finishing vo-tech carpentry classes, working at Benjamin Moore and designing children’s jumpers, in 1980 Coslick signed on as a general contractor in restoring a century-old, five-bedroom jewel on the Isle of Hope. Known as the Yellow Fever house for its legacy of hosting city dwellers fleeing an epidemic, the Victorian offered a mystery to unravel.
“It was like diving into a big chocolate cake,” remembers Coslick, who selected colors inspired by the sunrise. When she began, the floor was so uneven that inhabitants would roll off their beds. When she finished, the house nearly made the cut as the backdrop for the 1983 film “The Big Chill.” Coslick invested $375,000 in the property, which she now estimates is worth $3.5 million.
Her real beginning, however, came in 1992, 99 steps from the beach. Once temporary housing for the Army Corps of Engineers as they built the first road to Tybee, the tidy rental cottage now boasts Coslick’s signature plank walls, pocket windows, exposed rafters and Tybee Classics chairs (at left). Coslick moved on, snatching up another cottage for pennies on the dollar and relocating it away from the bulldozers.
All told, Coslick has restored some 30 cottages on Tybee and 10 on the Isle of Hope. She has worked on four new-construction homes that “feel old,” since she’s morally opposed to typical upgrades such as granite countertops and carpeting in favor of recycling conch shells as shower heads and watering cans for lamps.
Her cottages don’t come with tiny price tags. The one-room, pansy-pink Luscious Little Cottage was recently listed for $525,000.
After racking up accolades in print and on HGTV, Coslick, 62, is now working on a home furnishings and paint line in original colors like Horse Pen Creek Green and Honeydew Melon. She still enjoys taking a quiet moment to unleash the energy of a cottage and unearth its potential.
“If I can’t see a house finished, I can’t do the work,” she says.
—Margie Fishman is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.
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Want to add a fun, beachy theme to your small space? Coslick offers some tips:
• Surround yourself with objects you love. Don’t outfit your house to please the general public. “If you would marry it, buy it,” says Coslick.
• When you have a small house, everything has to have a function. A small passage next to a bedroom can be converted into a sitting area, showers can move outdoors, and sleeping porches can host coffee and cocktails.
• It’s important not to “overdo” anything in a small space. Coslick prefers simple flowy curtains and Benjamin Moore’s 001 white for walls. Remember the pink color your neighbor selected to match her beach lily? It can end up looking like Pepto-Bismol in the wrong light. A blank canvas and lots of windows will make the home appear larger, allowing artwork and fabrics to really pop, she says.