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Modern Living in the Old South

Modern Living in the Old South

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The Soundtrack of Sumter

Listening from their Sumter Avenue porch, Rob and Katie Arrington celebrate the sounds of Summerville.

By Susan Framton

From where a handful of tiny acorns landed on the forest floor some 400-odd years ago, six Live Oaks stand regally over the grounds of the home on Summerville’s Sumter Avenue. Withstanding the whims of Mother Nature, the seedlings slowly put down roots to support the ever-growing spread of their leaves and limbs. The centuries passed, and they watched the land change around them. By 1890, they were strong and proud when the home that would come to be known as Fair Oaks began to take shape.

Today, a pair of acorns adorn the brick pillars marking the entrance to Rob and Katie Arrington’s historic home – an homage to the oaks that are the property’s namesakes. Sumter Avenue was not the Arrington’s first stop when they moved to the Lowcountry. Something about the white house behind the acorn-topped columns drew them from the start. “It was Rob’s favorite house in Summerville,” says the former SC House Representative.

The couple learned that Fair Oaks had been purchased by an out-of-town buyer in the last decade and then sold as an investment property. It had been virtually empty for several years. Though they had lived in several different homes since they came to the area, this house was always in their thoughts. Katie remembers the two of them driving by again and again. She recalls the day they got out and looked in the windows. She declared to Robert, “I have to have this house!” The pair decided on the spot that this was a leap of faith worth taking. “Let’s go for it.”

Rob Arrington’s land surveying business kept him busier than ever, and they had barely moved in when Katie entered the race for the US Congressional seat. When she learned that the Dorchester Children’s Center was to begin lining up Sumter Avenue homes for their 15th annual Scrumptious Kitchen Tour, they signed up. “We truly felt that, in a way, the house belonged to Summerville. One of the local churches had used it as a retreat space, and we heard from so many people that they had been to the house or been swimming in the pool at some time or another. This was the perfect opportunity to share it with everyone.”

Defeating former Gov. Mark Sanford in the Republican Primary, Arrington was mid-campaign against Joe Cunningham in the General Election when she and a friend were victims in a near-fatal auto accident. Bent, but not broken by the tragic accident, following multiple surgeries and a two-week stay in the hospital. Arrington resumed her campaign. She lost to Cunningham by a very narrow margin. Not one to sit idle for long, Arrington accepted the Department of Defense’s position as Chief Information Officer to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition at the Pentagon. Still, public service beckoned Arrington, and though her bid was not successful, she ran in 2022 against Nancy Mace for the Congressional Seat.

Returning to Summerville after the hectic years in Washington, the Arringtons finally began making the renovations that would make Fair Oaks their own. “The last two years have been a flurry of renovations. She’s a beautiful house,” Katie says of the home where she sits comfortably curled on the sofa, “but she needed a lot of work. We need to make sure we meld the old and the new. It never ends when you take on a century-old home. One thing always seems to lead to another.” Her favorite project so far has been converting the large former living room into a dining room. “I had a table made to seat 24 people because we have 28 people in our immediate family. That’s a lot! We host all holidays, so I wanted a table big enough for everybody to have a seat at the table.” The massive table sits beautifully set with a blend of her mother’s and Rob’s mother’s china at each place. It doesn’t seem coincident that the two go together so beautifully.

Despite the fire that once tried to destroy it, hurricane winds that have battered its walls, and the ravages of time, the house remains as proud and strong as the heart pine timbers that support it. Though the historic home needed custom touches to fit their lifestyle and make it their own, it was even more important to the Arringtons to incorporate pieces to honor its character. “The china cabinet actually came from Charleston Place. It’s so mammoth that it will have to be here forever – it’s too hard to move.” Two dozen dining room chairs were salvaged from East Bay Street’s Cypress Restaurant, and a centuries-old door with a Prohibition-era peephole serves as a headboard in one of the bedrooms.

What they have created reflects their respect for the history and heritage Fair Oaks represents in Summerville while giving a nod to the reality of the changes that inevitably come with time. 

“This house has so much life to it and so much to give the community. We’ve already had seven weddings here and countless bridal and baby showers. I get calls all the time asking if the neighborhood kids can come to swim in the pool, and we have a ringside seat in the backyard to Laurel Street Park’s Miracle League events and Pickle Ball

“We’ve just re-poured the pool deck, and the next thing we’re planning is a pool house over here,” she says, pointing to the area this side of the yard’s vegetable garden and chicken coop. The new pool house will mirror the house’s architecture and no doubt echo its warm and welcoming elegance. “We hope to be able to host lots of Summerville’s special events,” she confides, sharing ideas she has in mind for a unique community fundraiser.

“I came in here just as Yankee as I could be,” says Katie, referring to her childhood upbringing in New York. “Summerville never hesitated for a second to embrace us as one of its own.” From their porch on Sumter Avenue, the Arringtons hear a soundtrack that is uniquely Summerville. “When my grandchildren play in the park, or we sit back and listen to the church bells, the Friday night football games, and the greetings from neighbors as they pass by, I feel how much a part of Summerville this house is and always has been.”

Katie Arrington knows what it’s like to be bent and broken, but like Fair Oaks, she has emerged stronger. The gift that Robert and Katie have given to all who enter its gates is a salute to all the town has been and a celebration of all it will be. Her energy and enthusiasm shine in her dancing brown eyes. “I want Fair Oaks to be as welcoming to all of Summerville as Summerville has been to us. The door is always open, and sweet tea is always in the refrigerator. Come by anytime.” And there is no doubt that she means it. AM

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