The Making of a Modern Farmhouse

Stacey Van Berkel
by John Kessler - South Carolina - April/May 2012

Architect Ken Pursley creates a rural home that is anything but homely

>Tour the house and the farm with our bonus photos.

Charlotte architect Ken Pursley was standing on the deck of a ferryboat, headed off on a camping trip with his wife and kids, when inspiration came bobbing into view. There, on the shore of Georgia’s remote Cumberland Island, appeared a turn-of-the-century icehouse that once belonged to an old Carnegie estate and had since become a small history museum. The structure had a funny kind of double-decker pitched roofline to accommodate a row of ventilation louvers, as well as a stacked column of windows right through the middle of the side wall. Pursley was captivated by both the Carpenter Gothic undertones and the striking versatility of its design. “It was one of those epiphany moments,” he recalls. His mind started flying, and by the time the boat docked, he knew he had found the model for Belk Farm.

Tim and Sarah Belk had recently commissioned Pursley to rebuild their farmhouse outside a small town in South Carolina. They loved the renovation work he had done on their Charlotte home, and figured he’d have a good plan for the property they used as a weekend getaway from the whirl of activity in town. (Tim runs the group of department stores that bears his family name, and Sarah is involved in a number of philanthropic activities.)

As Pursley saw it, they needed to tear down the redbrick ranch house on the property, which “felt like nowhere,” and replace it with “an agrarian structure that would give a sense of place” to the surrounding farm’s grain silos, chicken coops, and old barn. The Belks liked that idea but did not want a log cabin, either. Rather, they were looking for something contemporary, with an open floor plan and as much natural light as they could get.

Pursley had spent a few weeks sketching ideas without much success when he came upon the Cumberland Island icehouse. “The materials were humble, but it struck a beautifully proportioned and classic form against the landscape,” he recalls. “As soon as I saw it, I wondered what it would feel like to occupy it.”

Working with his business partner and project manager, Craig Dixon, Pursley framed out a three-story structure in stained cedar. As with the icehouse, a band of wide windows shoot straight up the center of the side wall. They reproduced the double-decker roofline, which made room for a horizontal stripe of clerestory windows that would allow light in during the day and glow with warmth at night.

Keeping true to his agrarian vision, Pursley used wood inside and out and let the simple, rough-hewn material guide other design choices. “This home was intended to be a counterpoint to the Belks’ Charlotte home,” he says. “Charlotte is brick, slate, and plaster walls. The Chester house would use completely different materials--wood, tin, and rope.”

Indeed, rope banisters climb alongside the inside stairs--a detail that makes everyone stop and smile. “The rope made the house feel a little more humble and a little more playful,” Pursley says. In the same vein, he used galvanized aluminum for the roof over the shower and salvaged a catfish trap he found on the property for the kitchen chandelier.

Pursley surrounded the bottom floor with as many windows as he could fit into the layout. In particular, the sitting area emerged looking like the wing of a crystal palace, with oversize glass doors embedded in floor-to-ceiling mullioned glass walls. “The home has a kinetic dimension,” Pursley notes. “I wanted it to be able to open up to celebrate a beautiful day.”  

The three-thousand-square-foot house can easily accommodate the Belks and their five children. Larger groups can bunk in the two semipermanent African safari tents by a pond on the property.

But Pursley’s favorite sleeping area is also the quirkiest: a bunkhouse he built on the third floor under the clerestory windows. Six bunks--three on each side of the common room--nestle on platforms under the pitched roofline. If you need privacy up here, you can pull a curtain shut over your bunk.

“So much architecture has gotten vanilla, but this is something you’ll remember uniquely to this house,” Pursley says. “If you grow up here, you’ll always have fond memories of this bunk room nook, of cuddling up and reading a book. I like the idea of creating spaces that leave an emotional impression.”