Park place: Steps from Savannah’s iconic Forsyth Park, interior designer Melissa Lee blends historic elements, bold patterns and classic southern style.
by Cathy Martin | photographs by Laura Sumrak
In 2021, Charlotte interior designer Melissa Lee had her sights set on purchasing a lake home. But a year into the pandemic, lakefront property values were skyrocketing. So she shifted gears and started looking toward more urban areas.
“I’ve always said I wanted to have a historic downtown home,” says Lee, principal designer, founder and CEO of New South Home. She considered Charleston, but grew leery after learning about the city’s strict short-term rental laws. Then a three-story townhome on a tree-lined street just two blocks from Forsyth Park in Savannah, Ga., caught her eye.
Lee converted a large formal dining room into a third bedroom. “If people are going to Savannah, they’re not eating in a formal dining room — they’re going out.”
Lee and her husband had visited Savannah before and appreciated the area’s mild winters. They envisioned the city as somewhere they could eventually “snowbird,” or retire.
The 3,000-square-foot home was already set up as a short-term vacation rental, with a separate studio apartment on the ground floor — it just needed a facelift, according to the designer. “It was very early 2000s,” Lee says, with caramel-colored walls, dated light fixtures and filled with second-hand furnishings. But architectural details like heart-pine floors, tall ceilings and intricate moldings captured her attention.
“That was one of the reasons I loved the house,” Lee says. “It was actually built in 2002, but it has all these details that you see in older homes. Even people who come to the house cannot believe it’s not historic.” The home’s relative newness amid the Victorians surrounding it was also a selling point for Lee’s husband, who felt more comfortable investing in a property less likely to need extensive repairs anytime soon.
Left – Right: The Regency Views mural by The Mural Source in the living/dining area is a nod to Williamsburg, Va., where Lee and her husband went to college. The sofa is by Fairfield Chair. A dramatic beaded chandelier is a focal point in the dining area. Rugs by Jaipur Living define the distinct living and dining spaces in the room. The gallery wall features a mix of family heirlooms, vintage art sourced from antique stores in Savannah and Charlotte, and pieces that came with the house when Lee purchased it in 2021.
“It was like a half-remodel if you will,” Lee says. “We didn’t touch the tile or cabinets, but we really updated all the other surfaces — new paint, new lighting, new countertops and wallpaper.”
Lee chose Thibaut wallpaper and fabrics throughout the home for the classic brand’s variety of unique, colorful patterns. She furnished the home with a mix of new pieces, antiques sourced across the Southeast, and items from her Charlotte home.
In the living room, a printed mural was inspired by the stately oaks draped with Spanish moss lining the neighborhood streets and the nearby 30-acre Forsyth Park. The Regency Views design from The Mural Source is from the Williamsburg Collection — Lee and her husband are both graduates of the College of William and Mary and have a fondness for the area.
Lee also converted a massive formal dining room — a seldom-used space in vacation rentals — to a third bedroom, adding antique double doors in one entry and closing off another with drywall. A corner shower was added to the first-floor half bath, while the bathrooms throughout the home were updated with new faucets, lighting by Visual Comfort and Cambria quartz countertops from InStyle Charlotte.
The first-floor garden apartment, accessed via a separate front entrance behind a petticoat staircase, needed a little more TLC. Fluorescent lighting and a pieced-together kitchenette were ripped out and replaced, and a bold backsplash — a quartz from Cambria’s Skara Brae collection — was installed, with floating shelves providing storage for dishes and small appliances. A cinderblock wall behind the bed was refaced with a veneer reminiscent of old Savannah brick.
The rattan headboard from Universal Furniture gives the third-floor primary suite a coastal feel.
Since the home is a vacation rental, Lee used stain-resistant Performance fabrics throughout; vinyl, easy-to-clean wallpapers; and rugs that are pretty but inexpensive enough that they can be replaced every few years. Bedding, however, was a priority. “We make sure the bedding is really nice,” Lee says — down comforters with washable duvet covers and premium linens.
The units sometimes stay booked months in advance, making it challenging for Lee and her family to spend much time there. But they’re slowly putting down roots and often spend holidays at their new home away from home. “We’re really getting to know the town and meet people,” says Lee, who is also in the process of updating a cabin she owns in the North Carolina mountains. She still hasn’t given up on that lake house, and envisions more design-centric vacation rentals in the future. “Ideally, we are looking to have multiple Airbnb properties around the Southeast that give guests a New South Home experience with our signature style and special touches that are not seen in most vacation rentals.” SP