Reid Burgess has long been enamored of Palladian architecture. As a child, he fell in love with it during a visit to Italy, and as a teenager, growing up in a Chicago suburb, he used to make elaborate drawings of villas for his high-school crushes.
One drawing depicted a Mediterranean estate with a large auto court; he named it after a girl called Lauren. Another was a little neoclassical temple with a black-and-white color scheme; he called that one the Black Pearl and gave it to a girl named Jenny.
Now, at 33, Burgess has finally built a grown-up version of his childhood fantasy. He calls the two-story house, which is about 870 square feet, the Smallest Palladian Villa in the World. And fittingly, he owns it with his girlfriend of 15 years, Sally Eisenberg, 33, an accountant who is as petite, at 5-foot-5, as he is tall (6-foot-4).
“She’s my muse,” Burgess said. “She loves small things and small places.”
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Burgess, a professional mandolin player who lives in New York, was inspired to bring his dream to life in Charleston, S.C., after reading an article about the work that George Holt, a self-taught designer, has been doing there. Holt, who started a firm called New World Byzantine with Andrew Gould, another designer, has spent the past 20 years restoring old homes and building new ones with a medieval aesthetic, and in the process has helped revitalize rundown neighborhoods.
“I woke up one day,” Burgess said, “and just knew I had to email George.”
Holt eventually put Burgess in touch with a developer named Gerard Moran, who has been involved in restoring the Elliotborough section of downtown Charleston. And Moran sold Burgess a 600-square-foot lot there, adjacent to several of Holt’s projects, for about $65,000.
As Holt, who designed the villa in collaboration with Gould and Burgess, observed: “The biggest challenge was the teeny lot, and the fact that Reid and Sally’s place would effectively be a town house flanked by adjacent buildings.”
Financing the house was another challenge. Burgess met with more than 20 lenders before being approved for a mortgage. In June 2011 he finally began construction under the supervision of Holt and Gould, who lives nearby in a house designed to look as if it dates from 1700.
Throughout the construction, Burgess kept a blog documenting his progress.
“Every town needs a castle,” his first entry read. “Every castle should be built by that same spirit that pulls kids into the woods to put up a tree fort.”
The house, which was completed this June, cost about $200,000, not including expenses like landscaping, permits and legal fees. And it was built to last, with solid masonry.
Burgess also managed to incorporate recycled materials like bricks and doors he found on the street. One of his favorite features is the fireplace studded with bricks dug up on the property, which he believes were part of fortifications from the War of 1812.
He found the experience of working with Holt so rewarding that they have started their own venture, a firm called Urban-Ergonomics. So Burgess and Eisenberg likely will be spending a good amount of time in Charleston.
When they are there, they occupy the villa’s open downstairs space, which is about 300 square feet and was furnished for around $1,000 with an eclectic mix of finds from Craigslist and eBay. (To save money, they rent out the two upstairs rooms to college students.)
It’s a small space, but efficiently designed and big enough for a couple, even when one of them is a man of Burgess’ stature.
“That’s why we have the 14-foot ceilings,” he said.