Going Dutch

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A real estate agent and retired tugboat captain drop anchor on Dutch Island.

During Judy and Art McDougal’s nearly 40 years together, they’ve raised two daughters, cared for Judy’s live-in father and tended to consuming careers (she, a real estate agent; he, a tugboat captain, now retired). Given all the activity, the idea of a home tailored solely to the two of them seemed like a faraway fantasy. And then, in 2017, they happened upon a Dutch Island lot where the marsh unscrolled before them in a serene palette of greens and blues. 

“I actually listed this lot, and I said to Art, ‘We need to go and look at it’,” Judy says. “Because at this point in our lives, we could do what we wanted to do, and we weren’t having to work around other family members.” 

Judy and Art McDougal with pups Skip and Jack. Photo by Beau Kester

The building process took a little over a year, and then the McDougals moved into their forever home. Judy makes it sound effortless — an uncomplicated project as easy and breezy as their expansive screened porch overlooking that marsh — but that’s because she and Art had four decades of planning behind them. To wit, they didn’t even hire an architect for their new build — just a draftsman to bring to life the raised, plantation-style home inhabiting their imaginations yet also born of a real place. 

“Art used to run a tugboat up and down the East Coast,” Judy says. “He spotted a house like this along the Outer Banks [of North Carolina]. He’s always had that house in his mind, so he kind of sketched it out.” For her part, Judy pored over books about traditional Louisiana architecture with high rooflines and no dormers. When the draftsman put together the final plans, he dubbed it simply “the river house.”


Its specs include an outdoor kitchen, a sun-filled first-floor master suite, shiplap built-ins and absolutely no formal living or dining rooms. This is perhaps a bit strange, since the McDougals regularly host friends, but it’s by design. The couple had both those rooms in their previous home, also on the island, and realized they never used them. By contrast, their farm house in Pennsylvania boasts an open concept. “We just use every bit of it,” Judy says, “and that’s what we wanted here.”

Judy’s extensive time working in local real estate — she’s been an agent for about 25 years — meant she knew what she didn’t want as much as what she did. She knew they wanted to stay on Dutch Island: a small, private community with thoughtful amenities and intracoastal views from Skidaway to Wilmington islands. She knew lots on the island were rarely available, so snapping one up quickly was imperative. She even had a builder in mind, whose subcontractors, she says, were “like family” by the end of the process. But just like those formal living and dining rooms, Judy was also adamant the home didn’t end up looking like a showroom. So, she decorated it herself — and, luckily, she’s got great taste.

“I didn’t want people to come in and say, ‘Oh, who was your decorator?’” she says. “I wanted them to come in and feel that we live very casually.” 

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That translates to a home that radiates dichotomous design principles. It’s dressed-up yet comfortable, supremely elegant but humble and approachable, too. Take the vast, walnut island in the kitchen, which serves a dual purpose. It’s low maintenance, for one, and its generous size allows for friends to both congregate and linger. Quartz countertops throughout the rest of the kitchen echo that same air of practicality: no finicky marble. 

The house also has a bit of quirk. What look like elephant tusks atop a stack of books, for example, are really fossilized bones Art found while boating. There’s an immaculate gallery wall — designed by Bellamy Murphy, a personal friend whose paintings the couple collects — but there are also unexpected keepsakes on display: a vintage flashlight that belonged to Judy’s father and an assortment of retro compacts from Judy’s mother and grandmother displayed in the bathroom, some with rouge still intact. In the laundry room, dubbed “the dog room,” low-maintenance slate floors offer the perfect spot for the couple’s Bichon Frises, Skip and Jack, to cool off after running around one of the home’s two screened porches.

Interior charms notwithstanding, the home naturally draws people (and dogs) outside. Judy counts the back porch among their favorite places in the home, and it’s a space they enjoy nearly every night. Art designed the outdoor kitchen and in his retirement has taken to cooking up Lowcountry delights: shrimp boils, oysters roasted on a custom cooker, fresh flounder on the grill. The porch has become something of a local restaurant for the McDougals’ acquaintances, and Judy’s savvy hosting skills mean there’s even a dedicated fridge for appetizer platters and wine. “Why would we go out for dinner?” Judy asks — and taking in the view, it’s hard not to agree with her.