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Classic Charleston Christmas

A 1746 Charleston house reflects tradition every day, most especially at Christmas

Written by Jennifer Wilson
  • Gordon Beall

    “This house is very old and very Georgian,” designer Deborah Warren says. “Houses like this just don’t lend themselves to 20th-century glitter and glitz.”

    A typical merchant’s dwelling of the time, her “deep, skinny Charleston single”—originally one room wide and two rooms deep—sits sideways to the street. Throughout the three-story home, Deborah deftly places colorful patterned fabrics against neutral backdrops and pairs reproductions of 18th-century crewel embroideries with modern crewels and pleated linen semi-sheer curtains. She adds reproduction wallpaper, an extensive collection of antique portraits, and furniture designs based on antiques that she sells in her Charleston design studio and shop, Midsummer Common.

    Deborah—who started out as a historian and became an arbitrage trader—began buying and renovating old houses 20 years ago. Her design business grew from that experience and comes in handy when adding holiday flourishes to the house she and her husband, astronomer Gus Oemler, have lived in for two years. Stacey Fraunfelter of Red Letter Events helped Deborah create striking holiday floral arrangements befitting the classic house.

    Photography: Gordon Beall
    Produced by Sandra Mohlmann

  • Gordon Beall

    Double Doors

    The entry’s antique double doors wear twin wreaths, and just inside, a “kissing ball” made of a clove-studded orange hangs from the chandelier. The spicy fragrance is a subtle reminder that the holidays are here.

  • Gordon Beall

    Drawing Room

    Red amaryllis repeat in each of the four box windows in the kitchen, as well as in the drawing room. In the dining room, white amaryllis, roses, and tulips suggest snow. A trio of three decorated mantels and the foyer banister wear a combination of cypress, cedar, and boxwood, intricately woven into garland roping. Each front-facing window is treated to a small wreath of pine, cypress, and boxwood—a uniformity that calls attention to the home’s handsome architecture.

    The seasonal wreaths represent family tradition for Deborah and Gus. The couple once lived on a Connecticut farm where they had several acres overlooking Long Island Sound, some of it overgrown with holly and fir trees. “The year Martha Stewart made us all totally insecure by doing her first big Christmas special,” Deborah chuckles, “I tromped into the field with my stepson’s red wagon and cut about two tons of greenery. I dragged it inside and proceeded to make swags for four fireplaces and wreaths for every window. I still do lots of swags and wreaths, but I order the greenery these days.”

    Coral roses and ribbons make unusual seasonal accents in the drawing room.

  • Gordon Beall

    Dining Room

    Pineapples, long a symbol of hospitality, accent some of the arrangements, particularly in the dining room. It’s a reminder of the southern coast’s shipping past. “When the captain was home, the family put a pineapple on a post to let others know they were welcoming guests,” says Deborah.

    “Vases” on the narrow 18th-century mantel add a playful holiday touch. These petite crystal glasses, called shooters, were once used for morning cocktails before hunting parties in the South. “Our grandmothers all had shooters,” says Deborah. “We use them for arrangements of flowers in greenery because they don’t fall off, and you don’t want to put nail holes in an 18th- century mantel.”

    Deborah designed the striking marble-topped dining table.

  • Gordon Beall

    Pretty Tabletop

    Family heirlooms—china, crystal, and silver—glimmer in the dining room. Wallpaper made in Sweden on a 19th-century press looks hand-blocked and features a white print on a neutral background. “My husband’s grandmother was the family party animal, a great Savannah hostess,” says Deborah. “She bought wonderful crystal and silver, so we’re very lucky.”

    White amaryllis give a ladylike nod to the holiday in the dining room. 

  • Gordon Beall

    Living Room

    From the living room tree hangs a well-loved collection of ornaments, including the sand dollars Deborah’s mother gathered on Hilton Head and the tree-topper angel her stepson, Clarke, made in grade school 20-some years ago. Recently Deborah gave the angel a facelift, constructing new wings and painting her gold. “I don’t think any of us would feel the same about a store-bought angel,” says Deborah.

    Green dendrobium orchids are woven through the mantel garland. A 17th- century portrait of a Danish crown prince hangs above

  • Gordon Beall

    Sitting Room

    Family and tradition are her priorities all year long, and never more so than during the holidays, when she throws an annual party right after Christmas. The feast always includes spiral-cut ham, huge salads, and dozens of rolls for everyone from grandparents and godchildren to neighbors and family friends.

    Designer Deborah Warren decorated her back sitting room with natural elements appropriate to this 18th- century Charleston home. Sparkling tiny white lights add to the holiday feeling.

  • Gordon Beall


    “Ultimately, a Southern Christmas is defined by family, friends, and food,” Deborah says.

    Deborah with her toy poodles, Missy and Murphy.

  • Eric Roth