Designer Ceara Donnelley opens the doors to Ashepoo, her family’s decades-old retreat in South Carolina’s ACE Basin, to reveal a time capsule way of living that has been both lovingly preserved and updated to endure for generations to come.
As Told to The Urban Electric Co.
I don’t think I have a distinct first memory of Ashepoo. As a child, it was more synonymous with Thanksgiving. There was such a tradition and ritual to our time there, right down to getting off the train at the Amtrak station in Walterboro, South Carolina, after chugging down from New York City, where I grew up, because my mom didn’t fly. From the smell of the Lowcountry—the pluff mud, the sulphur, scents familiar enough to me now that I live in Charleston as to be almost unnoticeable —to the dampness and humidity in the air, Ashepoo is in my DNA.
My grandparents Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley built Ashepoo in the 1960s, after purchasing the land as a retreat from their permanent residence in Illinois. At the time, the Lowcountry felt like a little bit of a secret or an untapped discovery, especially for two devoted conservationists who really connected with wild places and the land and nature in general.
For my grandparents, there was a clear intent in the architecture from the beginning to break down the boundaries between inside and outside. Long, pond-facing porches, low ceilings and rooflines, smart design that blended into the landscape, sweeping windows and rambling single-floor structures. The goal was to ensure that nothing was jarring, and everything was designed to shift your mindset and create an atmosphere conducive to a true retreat. That’s something I think about a lot in my professional capacity as a designer, both here and elsewhere—that difference between designing a home that is a full-time residence as opposed to a place where you go to purposely feel a certain way and to activate a part of your psyche that’s hard to access during the daily grind and stress of everyday life.
Driving in, through a longleaf pine savanna, the view is pretty iconic all the way to the house. And once you arrive at the main buildings, it’s all just so special. Not a grand estate, just an impactful one. You’re greeted by azaleas first along the back of the house, which is the road-facing side of the property. There’s a wide staircase leading to this tomato, orangey-red door, which is the signature color of all the doors at Ashepoo. The door to the main house is flanked by two statues by a sculptor named Wheeler Williams, who was a distant relation on my grandmother’s side.
There’s a deck in front of the house where we sit as often as the weather will allow, with a great fish-shaped weathervane that punctuates the view of the pond. There’s a similar weathervane, a cricket, at my grandparents’ home in Chicago. But that view from the deck—I think I’ve painted or photographed it so many times at this point that I could sketch it from memory.
In the living room, there’s a painted cabinet for displaying china and other odds and ends. It was done by a friend of my grandmother’s and has such whimsy and texture. The house is filled with things like that, pieces that carry a lot of personality and personal history. I learned so many design lessons at Ashepoo. The whole atmosphere, the feeling, the character of the place, is so unique. This house was collected and curated over time. Little dishes with funny sayings, needlepoint pillows offering irreverent advice, carved birds everywhere—it all reflects a totally original point of view. There was and is a total unselfconsciousness in the selection of fabrics and furnishings and colors; it was all designed to engender joy and contentment. And there was such a lack of preciousness that defined my grandparents’ existence here.
There are so many moments like that, these visual touchstones that shape my mental image of childhood and my own identity. Which is why, when it came time to update some of the existing buildings to accommodate our growing and evolving family and the needs of a new generation, it became really important to me to maintain the elements that defined Ashepoo for us all, even as we modernized the new spaces to suit new needs.
We now have three members of the family under one year old. We realized that if we wanted Ashepoo to continue to play for them the role it played for us, and the role my grandparents envisioned it playing for future generations—a place that not only brings us together as a family but that also anchors our family identity with respect to this part of the world and our larger commitment to conservation—we would need to add on. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the design of a new house we built as part of that expansion plan.
Within my own family, the collective wisdom was to stay within the vernacular and language of Ashepoo’s history but make it work for us today. For instance, there’s a little den off the living area in the new house, and as I was thinking of the furniture plan with the goal of replicating what my grandparents would have done, it became clear that they would have selected a midcentury-style sofa with two side tables.
But the old aesthetic didn’t work for the way our family would use it today—it’s already where the cousins and dogs pile in for movie nights—so we got a sectional instead, which my grandmother never would have done. And, yet, when we covered it in a print she would have loved, something that reflected her signature palette, it suddenly felt right at home.
When we were growing up, there was a clearly defined rhythm to life at Ashepoo. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and then drifted off to our own pursuits in between, whether it was reading or playing games, exploring the grounds or swimming in the pool house. It was a formal way of living, but not overly so. We dressed up for dinner every night, yes, but we were also more often than not doing cartwheels in the living room as we were on our way to the table.
Everything has definitely loosened up a bit now, but we do try to maintain that sense of formality when we can—because it’s fun and it creates a sense of continuity for our children. If the whole family gathers for a holiday, for example, we get dressed every night for dinner. We stick to the rhythm of our childhood.
I feel my grandparents’ and parents’ presence in my life so strongly in this house, and so do my two children and my sisters and nieces and nephews. It’s a way of remaining connected to the past and allowing it to shape who we and they become—both in terms of the people they will be and in the way they see the world.
I have flashbacks pretty regularly when I’m at Ashepoo, experiencing life there through my children—especially my daughter because she’s a little girl. There’s a wooden rocking horse in the living room that she loved to ride when she was younger. Watching her, I could vividly remember the feeling of freedom and fun of rocking on it myself. It’s an amazing full-circle thing.
Also, as a designer, I see things I appreciated and remembered as a child in an entirely new light because I understand it. Back then, I didn’t know the language to explain what I was drawn to or why I responded to certain elements. Now, as an adult who understands how extraordinary my grandparents’ lives and aesthetic choices were—well, it’s incredible. I feel like I’m in a dialogue with the two of them and with my earlier self every time I’m in this place.