A Safe Harbour

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On the banks of Richardson Creek, a family with deep Savannah roots honors the past and builds toward the future.  
Judy Bean shares their sun-soaked memories.  »  Photography by Richard Leo Johnson

The Martins’ homestead on Whitemarsh Island, like many along our coast, turns a humble face to the outside world.  But as my wheels crunch along the two-track gravel driveway, magic unfolds.

About a quarter mile ahead, a rambling house sits invitingly, framed by the distinctly bright sky that promises water beyond.  But tempting as that destination appears, a smaller dwelling beckons from a shady site to the right—a red-shuttered, white structure with a wide, screened porch.  In the front yard, a plank swing hangs from a live oak and a hand-painted sign on the white picket fence proclaims this as “Gonga’s Cottage.”

“Gonga” is Linda Martin, so nicknamed by her four grandchildren.  She has lived in the 670-square-foot, four-room home for three years now, but the land upon which it sits holds many memories for her.  This is where she once lived with Joe, her lifelong sweetheart and husband of 39 years, in the waterfront house at the end of the driveway.  Their son, Joel, lived next door with his wife, Kim, and children, Macy and Joel III.

The three generations spent six sunny years side by side, but all that ended with a tragedy.  When Joe drowned while away on a fishing trip, Linda was shocked and heartbroken.  She says that’s when she started “running.”  Haunted by memories, she sold her and Joe’s waterfront home to Joel, who combined it with his house to form one big family home.  Linda went on to live in four different homes during the next seven years.

Joel and his sister, Shirley Jenkins, also crushed by the loss of their father, were similarly distressed by “Mama’s running.”  Although they remained emotionally close to their mother, Joel and Shirley agreed that Linda would be happier “back home.”  They wanted to create a place where she could make new memories while treasuring the old ones.  That’s when they turned to the cottage.

A Healing Haven

Originally constructed in the 1930s and owned for decades by neighbors, the shanty had sat untended for years by the side of the Martins’ drive.  But, as all of the Martins agreed, it showed promise.  Joel purchased it for his mother in 2010 and began remodeling.

The home now boasts a surprisingly spacious-seeming, sunlit interior.  Light pours in from all sides through the original, wavy-glass windows.  White fabrics and whitewashed wood showcase antiques and maritime mementos.  Seashells and family photographs hint at stories of summers spent tied to the tides.

To create this comforting space, Joel knocked down unwieldy interior walls and added a bathroom, back porch and second bedroom (which Linda has fashioned as a walk-in closet) to the cozy structure.  He also installed heart pine floors, appropriate to the era, at the suggestion of celebrated coastal designer Jane Coslick.

Jane also stepped in to save the home’s original wavy-glass windows.  Best-known for her Tybee home makeovers, Jane is widely credited as an expert in seaside cottage aesthetics.  Interior light, she insists, is key to cottage appeal, and insulated glass doesn’t provide the same shimmer.  After a call from Linda, she drove straight to the house and persuaded Joel to retrieve the old windows from the dumpster and have them re-installed.

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As the home evolved, Jane and Linda became fast friends.  Linda, herself a decorator, once owned the shop Nellie’s Nook on Broughton Street and still enjoys finding antiques and decorative oddities.  She filled her cottage with items she loved, often seeking Jane’s opinion on color and placement.  Jane provided expert advice on key elements that kept the interior bright and airy, including the muslin curtains and unobtrusive media storage.   Jane helped Linda design the kitchen and provided the weathered corbels that support the dining-room side of the breakfast bar, clad in multi-hued wood reclaimed from ripped-out original walls.  She also drew plans for the picket fence and the working exterior shutters—complete with starfish cutouts.

Neither Jane, Linda nor Joel intended the home to become a showcase.  Instead, they sought only to create a safe haven for Linda’s heart.  Linda says they met their objective.

“For years, I ran and ran, from house to house and church to church,” she said.  “But now at last, I’m in a healing place.  I feel safe and happy here.  I’m finally home.”

As Linda sits on her breezy front porch, next to a hand-painted chair that was her husband’s last gift to her—delivered from the artist on the day that Joe died—she finds solace in her memories and her family’s constant presence.  Grandchildren honk and shout “Hi, Gonga!” as they pass by on the gravel drive.

The Family Home

Today, Joel and Kim inhabit the combined waterfront home, a joyful tribute to this family’s ongoing closeness.  In contrast to the bright, white simplicity of Linda’s cottage, this much bigger home brims with colorful mementoes.  Nautical motifs and objects repeat rhythmically from room to room.  Old signs from Joe and Linda’s businesses—Martin’s Rugs and Nellie’s Nook—hang on the walls, along with Joel III’s sports uniforms and Macy’s dance costumes.

Linda hung most of the memorabilia.  She fondly points out favorite photographs, furnishings and a red player piano, which Joe found in an old rural church.  “Let the good times roll,” the quaint, hand-painted letters on the piano’s upper front demand.  And the good times are rolling again: around the piano, in the large kitchen and great room—a newly constructed space that connects the two original houses—and on and around a multilevel, compound deck-and-dock structure that leads to the sparkling creek.

Weekends, vacations and holidays are spent here with Joel and Kim’s family; his sister, Shirley, and her family (who live just a few minutes up Richardson Creek); Kim’s sister, Debbie, and a multitude of friends.  Linda is the center—a radiant and cherished presence in her children’s and grandchildren’s lives.  And Joe is still there in many ways.  He grins in countless photos.  He moves through everyone’s memories.  He’s heard in the clan’s high-spirited laughter and felt in the salt-scented breeze that blows gently across the water.

The Martin Stats »

Linda Martin’s Home

Year built:  Circa 1935, rebuilt in 2010

Square footage:  670 conditioned, 336 unconditioned

Accommodations:  2 bedrooms, 1 bath

Time to rebuild and remodel:  1 year

Joel and Kim Martin’s Home

Year built:  West house, circa 1930; east house, 1970; combined in 2010

Square footage:  5,000 conditioned, 3,000 unconditioned

Accommodations:  4 bedrooms, 4 baths

Time to combine and remodel:  1 year


The Martin Referrals »

Linda Martin’s Home

Interior designers:  Linda Martin and Jane Coslick

Contractors:  Joel Martin, Russ Nelson

Tile/flooring:  The Rug Shoppe

Kitchen design:  Coastal Cabinets

Bath design:  Joel Martin, Linda Martin, Jane Coslick

Landscape and hardscape design:  Danny Nelson, The Nelson Group

Carpenter:  Russ Nelson

Plumber:  Hutson Plumbing

HVAC:  Westberry Heating and Air Conditioning

Furniture:  The Market on Newcastle, Brunswick

Appliances:  Home Depot

Accessories:  The Market on Newcastle, Nellie’s Nook, Christy’s on Tybee

Art:  Bellamy

Joel and Kim Martin’s Home

Architects/planners:  Joel Martin, Kim Martin, Gary Davis

Interior designer:  Linda Martin, The Rug Shoppe

Contractors:  Joel Martin, Gary Davis

Tile/flooring:  The Rug Shoppe

Kitchen and bath design:  Wilmington Cabinet Company

Lighting design:  Johnson Lighting

Landscape design:  Danny Nelson, The Nelson Group

Hardscape design:  The Rug Shoppe, Flooring America

Electrician:  Louie Herrington

Carpenter:  Gary Davis

Plumber:  Hutson Plumbing

Landscaper:  Danny Nelson, The Nelson Group

HVAC:  Westberry Heating and Air Conditioning

Furniture:  The Rug Shoppe

Appliances:  Livingood’s

Accessories:  Nellie’s Nook, Linda Martin