Preservationist, designer, and visionary Jane Coslick gives Tybee Island’s historic cottages a second life
Photo by Richard Leo Johnson
When you visit Tybee Island, just 20 minutes east of Savannah, Georgia, there are some sights you can’t miss: the marshes on either side of the causeway, the long stretch of beaches and sprawling sea oats, and the centuries-old blue-and-white-striped lighthouse that towers over the barrier island. But it’s the cottages that get you dreaming.
With names such as Amazing Grace, Key Lime Parrot, Surf Puppy, and Fish Camp, these restored cottages charm you with their cheery palettes, blooming window boxes, and throwback touches. Their airy porches invite you to sit for a while and soak up the sea breezes, while a peek into their cozy rooms with whitewashed walls, heart pine floors, and bountiful books, art, and seaside treasures leave you longing for a simpler way of life.
Few tourists leave Tybee Island without stumbling across one of these historic cottages and stopping to daydream about what it must be like to live in one.
“I love hearing people talk about how much they love them and wish they had one,” says Jane Coslick, who often passes these admirers while riding her bike through the island neighborhoods.
Little do they know that it was her passion and ingenuity that rescued many of these cottages from the wrecking ball and gave them a second life. Since moving to Tybee Island in the early 90s, Jane has single-handedly saved and restored more than a hundred homes on the island and at Isle of Hope, a historic community on Savannah’s intracoastal waterway.
“It’s been a hard fight, but people are starting to recognize the value of these homes and search for them so they can have one for themselves,” she says.
Scattered throughout the island like pretty seashells along the shore, her restorations—fondly called Jane Coslick Cottages by the locals—have graced the covers of coffee-table books and lifestyle magazines such as Coastal Living and Cottage Living. They have appeared on episodes of HGTV and have even served as the backdrop for a Hallmark movie, “Love at the Shore.”
Before Jane came along, many of these cottages were dilapidated from decades of neglect, their beauty masked by haphazard additions by previous owners. She began buying them when no one else wanted them and stripping them down to their frames to recover the original architecture and details that gave them character.
She salvages what she can from each cottage, from old windows, shutters, and boards to furniture, fixtures, and relics she can repurpose, and spruces the homes up with tin roofs, fresh paint, refinished floors, and a landscaped yard for curb appeal. Inside you won’t find fancy crown molding, kitschy signs, or oversized pieces, just simple, comfy decor with a bit of whimsy to match Tybee’s laid-back but quirky vibe—or as Jane puts it, a place that “makes you feel happy when you walk through the door.”
“You have to look at a house with the right attitude,” she says. “You can’t look at the ugliness of it. You have to look at the possibilities and think positive. You’re always going to uncover unknowns, but there’s something about a house with history. It just sleeps better.”
A Savannah native, Jane grew up with an appreciation for historic homes, but it wasn’t until she moved into an 1870 home at Isle of Hope that she fell in love with preservation. A children’s clothing designer and young mother of two at the time, she got so involved in restoring the home that she signed on as general contractor.
“I didn’t know anything—I was just the gopher,” she says. “But I was there every day, and it got in my blood.”
The home turned out so well that she started heading up restoration projects for others, opening an office in Isle of Hope’s former general store and post office and taking design, construction, and carpentry courses at the local community college to build on her skills. When condo developers set their sights on a row of historic homes in her neighborhood, Jane, then president of the historical association, led the fight to stop them. Ultimately, the group bought the developers out, restored the homes, and sold them.
After becoming an empty nester in her early 50s, Jane decided to move to Tybee Island where she and her family vacationed in the summers and fix up a 625-square-foot cottage on the beach that she had been eyeing for years.
Built in the 1920s to house Army Corps of Engineers workers while they constructed the first road to Tybee, the shack was in rough shape, with plywood ceilings covered in black mold, snakes nesting in the attic, and rooms darkened with brown and beige paint. Friends thought she was crazy, but Jane loved its pocket windows, screened porch overlooking the ocean and location just 99 steps to the beach, and saw potential. She installed French doors for more sunlight, ripped out the ceiling to expose the rafters, sanded the floors, and brightened the house in white and periwinkle hues.
Next, Jane turned her attention to another tiny home two doors down that heirs of the property were planning to raze. Though they turned down her offer to restore and design the cottage for free, they sold her the structure for a dollar. She moved it to a nearby lot where it drew complaints from neighbors and fines from the city marshal. But when Jane transformed the eyesore into an idyllic cottage featured on the cover of Coastal Living, attitudes changed.
“When the city marshal came over to see it, he almost cried,” she recalls. “He became like my PR person after that. If anyone came to town and bought a house to tear it down, he would show them the magazine and say, ‘Wouldn’t you rather restore it instead?’”
With more cottages from Tybee’s resort town heyday in danger of decay or development, Jane snapped up every one she could.
She turned a dumpy 450-square-foot dwelling into a luscious hot pink cottage, converting an old railroad train ticket booth behind it into a sleeping porch for extra space.
She bought the “ugliest house on the island,” which had languished on the market for a decade, and revamped it into a Bohemian-themed cottage, complete with a gazebo, garden, and fishpond.
She fell for a drab little shack she spotted during one of her bike rides through Tybee’s Back River district. With a caving roof, rotting floors, and overgrown garden, “it was a little spooky, but it had beautiful morning glories and forsythia bushes everywhere,” Jane recalls. She bought it fully furnished, painted it bright blue with yellow trim, opened up rooms, and gave it a funky makeover, living there for a while before selling it to buy another endangered cottage in the neighborhood.
“That’s how I got started—just seeing that there was a need when nobody else would step up,” she says.
Eventually, Tybee residents began to recognize Jane’s efforts to preserve the Island’s historic neighborhoods and to seek her help restoring their homes. She has revived many of Tybee’s raised cottages, built as summer escapes during Savannah’s yellow fever epidemic in the 1870s, bringing back their high ceilings, wavy glass windows, and wraparound porches.
She loves uncovering parts of the homes that have gotten lost over time: the 12-foot ceilings hiding behind acoustical tiles, old porches that have been enclosed, and the hardwood beneath carpet, drywall, and cheap paneling.
“I like bringing nature and the outside in,” says Jane, who uses outdoor showers, alfresco dining nooks, and sleeping porches insulated with curtains to expand the tight space in cottages.
She paints walls white to make rooms look bigger and accents them with pops of color inspired by everything from the sunrise over the ocean to the flowers growing in the yard. She has a knack for finding just the right fabrics and furnishings to invigorate a room.
“That’s my gift,” says Jane, who scours antique and secondhand stores for many of her finds. “I can take what seems like junk to someone else and use it to give a house a unique mix of things nobody else has.”
These days, she juggles a handful of restoration projects at a time for clients from Savannah and beyond. “I try to become my clients to get them what they want,” she says. But she’s blatantly honest with them, too, about what works best for their home and usually brings them around to her perspective.
“Every cottage I do is my favorite, because I put my heart, soul, sweat, and tears into each one,” Jane says. “They have all given me heartache and joy. It’s hard to let them go. I have withdrawals. But then I see how happy people are with them.”
Knowing that she has helped change how others see Tybee’s historic cottages makes it worthwhile, and she’s always on the lookout for more forgotten ones to rescue.“You can’t save everything—or so everyone tells me—but I’m trying.”