The hardy, turn-of-the-century house in historic Waverly had been divided into three apartments — then boarded up for at least 10 years — when Sylvie Kenig-Dessau started driving by, dreaming of reclaiming it.
She came by so often that a neighbor prone to sitting on the porch began to wave.
Then a “for sale” sign went up. Dessau was smitten by the ornate plaster work atop porch columns but, once inside, it was the central staircase, with its carved side-risers, that convinced her she just had to have it.
“I felt I could do something for this house. It deserved to be helped,” she said.
It was an emotional move, not a calculated one. Dessau was convinced if she didn’t buy the house, it would end up demolished.
So she and her husband Louis bought the 3,000-square-foot house in 2004, distinguished by quality workmanship and materials rarely seen in new homes. Its designation on the National Register of Historic Places refers to it as the Collins House, named for a prominent African-American businessman whose family owned the home for most of the 20th century.
It took three years and $94,000 for the Dessaus to restore it. Sylvie Dessau did a lot of the work herself — the demolition, framing, electrical work, finish carpentry and flooring.
Along the way, she discovered gems. Stained-glass windows had been stashed in the attic. A vinyl bath enclosure covered a window. A cloverleaf pattern on original tile emerged from beneath a grimy finish.
Dessau rummaged for doors at salvage stores and in curbside trash piles. She found three identical mantels at an antique mall and snapped up hardware online.
Dessau, who worked in real estate development in Paris, where she lived most of her life, said her goal was to create a useable, comfortable house that still looks like the old house it is. “I was not trying to recreate it, and I definitely was not trying to make it a modern house,” she said.
She did, however, modify the interior layout slightly to end up with 2-1/2 bathrooms and a laundry room.
The lawn and gardens are the domain of Dessau’s husband, a native of Denmark, who works at the University of South Carolina international business school. The couple moved to Columbia in 1995.
Louis Dessau discovered a goldfish pond buried in the front yard. A neighbor who remembered the feature from childhood was ecstatic.
“This neighborhood has the potential to be a tiny Elmwood Park,” Sylvie Dessau said. “People are buying and fixing up houses — slowly.”