July 2018

At Home in Berkeley Hall: An Okatie River Contemporary Jewel

Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

A circle drive defined by well-selected flora and foliage leads to Gary Donner and Irene Miller’s spectacular home set on a generous portion of land on Laurel Spring Road, on the bank of the Okatie River in Berkeley Hall. The remarkable contemporary architecture of the home sets it apart with a clever blend of crisp lines and soft curves establishing its silhouette, and windows placed to illuminate the architecture and invite appreciation of the singular views. This is decidedly a home designed to reflect its residents.


A circle drive defined by well-selected flora and foliage leads to Gary Donner and Irene Miller’s spectacular home, set on a generous portion of land on Laurel Spring Road, on the bank of the Okatie River in Berkeley Hall.

“It was a great opportunity to work with two of my favorite people and to design something that was uniquely them,” said Eric Moser, Moser Design Group, the home’s architectural designer. “I met Gary and Irene many years ago when my firm was located on Hilton Head; I now live in Beaufort. I designed four homes for them, three of which were built. They have traveled extensively and have experienced so much. It was my responsibility, and honor, to attempt to create a home that embodied their wonderful vision and amazing sense of style.”


Up one flight of stairs from the guest room is a stunning domed space that was originally planned as attic storage. Curved bamboo beams and ample natural light complete the workout room, which overlooks the Okatie River.

The first pass at the design of the home’s architecture was all straight lines and sharp angles, Donner said. “Berkeley Hall’s Architectural Review Board is great to work with; they don’t try to dictate taste. The standards and guidelines are flexible enough to offer people a degree of latitude,” which was beneficial during the design phase of this modern home. It was Moser who suggested adding the curved ceilings and roof lines, and the homeowners were delighted with the final look.


Thoughtfully situated throughout the home are paintings, sculptures, glasswork, and ceramics.

Walking up the clean, white, stone entry steps and leaning into the tall, wooden door, the mere weight of it creates a slow reveal to the home’s treasures. Beyond the first entry lies a serene garden courtyard inviting entry to the guest house on the left and main home straight ahead. What is found beyond is a collection of architecture and art, and life and living, that truly does capture Donner and Miller’s personalities and styles of living.


Flowing into the dressing and bath area, the over-sized shower has three glass sides, with the fourth being an extraordinary wall of stone called “Starry, Starry Night.” The Van Gogh-inspired dark, sparkling stone is also the surface for the dressing area island, and just around the corner is the laundry galley space with loads of counter space and storage.

It was their passion for wine that first created the spark that led to this particular project. After visiting and renting on Hilton Head Island starting in 1997, the New York couple built their first Lowcountry home in Palmetto Dunes, where they lived for five years. Builder Randy Jeffcoat, Randy Jeffcoat Builders, built that home, and was the builder on this home, as well. “During those five years, we started collecting wine,” Donner said. “The house didn’t have a wine cellar, and we wanted a wine cellar, so the choices were to expand the house or to move. We decided the house wasn’t suitable for expanding, and we owned a lot in Berkeley Hall, which was pretty new at the time, so we decided to move there.”


The master suite overlooks the river, with appointments and details designed for truly fine living.

Stepping into the foyer, the home’s dining room sits to one side, where the space is lit by a custom 450-pound chandelier comprised of 72 custom-made, warm amber glass orbs. “It took two men, two-and-a-half days to put together,” said Randy Jeffcoat Builder’s project manager, Craig Carlson. And beyond the dining room sets a player grand piano. Turning the opposite direction, down a short hallway, is a glass door leading to the wine room.

“We wanted climate-controlled storage,” Miller said. “And it’s primarily storage.”

With nearly 1,000 bottles, the collection rests on wooden racks designed to hold two bottles in each space—double-deep storage. Other than keeping the temperature at a constant 55 degrees, a good cork screw, a couple of decanters, and a few wine glasses, the wine room is all about the wine. “You see fancy wine cellars with tables and all that. I’ve never been one to sit and eat dinner in 55 degrees,” Donner said.


Their collecting began around 1989 and is focused on their specific tastes rather than the act of building a collection. “Our selection of wine is pretty broad, but I would say there are two focuses,” Donner said. “One would be Burgundy and the other would be Central Coastal California. People don’t really talk about that region much, but I think most of the good wine made in America comes from the Central Coast. We buy what we like. We buy it because we hope to drink it someday.”

The footprint of the main home includes an open floorplan, where the Okatie River view can even be seen from the street in front of the home. The windows have been aligned to be able to see through the guest house, into the dining room, through the living space, past the pool and porch, and on to the water and nature beyond. Waterside, the couple’s kayaks sit in racks alongside their private dock. “We picked up kayaking on an Alaskan trip,” Donner said. “When we went to Antarctica, we kayaked almost every day.”

“You’ve seen our fleet; it’s the kayaks,” Miller said. “I would say we’re the adventurous type.”

In the kitchen, marble counters flank stunning glass backsplashes. A unique butler-style pantry and staging area sits behind Scavolini cabinets and an impressively large refrigerator, suitable for the couple’s penchant for entertaining. The kitchen and pantry are equipped with all the appliances and accoutrements to create a gourmet experience. “We like to cook,” Miller said. “We don’t do as much of it as we’d like. We are hoping to get back into it.”

The home was designed with an elevator that makes four stops. Starting in the garage, next the main living floor, then a half-flight up to the media room level, and on to a guest room and bath. One more flight of stairs up from the guest room is a surprising and stunning domed-ceiled space that was originally planned as attic storage. However, with long spans of windows facing both to the front of the house, and out the back, the space was retooled as a gym, replete with weights, bands, mats, and equipment.


The media space has an extra-large screen with tiers of luxurious lounge chairs. “We watch movies and sporting events there two or three nights a week,” Donner said. Like all the window shades throughout the house, the media room shades are controlled remotely and disappear into the ceiling. The media room has the addition of black-out shades to create a theater experience without distractions.

The master suite overlooks the river with appointments and details designed for truly fine living. A double-sided television provides viewing from a cozy seating area and from the splendid bed. Flowing into the dressing and bath area, the over-sized shower has three glass sides, with the fourth being an extraordinary wall of stone called “Starry, Starry Night.” The Van Gogh-inspired dark, sparkling stone is also the surface for the dressing area island, and just around the corner is the laundry galley space with loads of counter space and storage.

Interior designer, Christina Scharf, CS Interiors Boutique Design Studio, delivered the magic that brought all the spaces together with the owner’s art collection, their tastes, and their lifestyles. “Christina was the perfect interior designer for us,” Miller said. “We like to be part of the process, and we like to find things. She came to New York a few times and we all went out shopping for things and looking for stuff. We would find pieces and she would help to tell us ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It was a very collaborative process. We also had her help us with our New York apartment.”

Scharf’s timeless imprint is seen in the elegant arrangement of the art and architecture, shapes and textures of the home. “Most of the art has come from somewhere we’ve been,” Miller said. “Everything you see in our South Carolina house we have either had in previous houses or we have acquired it along the way. There is a story about every piece.”


Thoughtfully situated throughout the home are paintings, sculptures, glasswork, and ceramics. Each piece creates a reason to pause and appreciate. In the media room, a Lladró ceramic of Don Quixote keeps watch over the space from the top tier, and at the base of the screen sets a charming wooden hobby horse found at a Paris auction house. As part of their varied collection, the couple were captivated by the paintings of Miguel Aráoz Cartagena during a visit to South America and have collected and display several of his pieces. The three glass fish sculptures overlooking the living room were commissioned by Donner and Miller when they saw artist Amanda Brisbane’s work at Wynn Las Vegas. A complete catalogue of their pieces would be a great read in and of itself. However, it is a primitive-looking collection of five small statues, less than a foot each, that welcomes guests at the home’s entrance and really wows. Won at the same Paris auction house mentioned above, the “Chinese Chicks,” as the couple affectionately refer to them, are Tang Dynasty, Miller said.


An integral part of displaying art and making a home comfortable and welcoming is the lighting, and this home does not disappoint. “We would have never thought about lighting consultants in our previous houses,” Miller said. A lighting distributor in New York recommended Axel Consulting, who brought exceptional options to the design of the home, including Donner’s favorite aspect of their home (admittedly, a difficult choice)—“the living room, which is so comfortable. One of the things I love in this house is the lighting. There is a light in the living room that shines across the ceiling, and I love the way it works.”

The Berkeley Hall home that Gary Donner and Irene Miller have built, in collaboration with a collection of creative, hard-working design and building professionals, accommodates their eclectic tastes, adventurous lives, and exceeds their imaginations. This remarkable, contemporary home decidedly reflects its residents.

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