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The Earl of Shaftesbury

A passionate preservationist, Nicholas Edmund Anthony Ashley-Cooper—known formally as the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, his English ancestral title, and informally as Nick Ashley-Cooper, a devoted husband and father who once moonlighted as a New York City DJ—spent the past decade stewarding the restoration and renovation of his family’s centuries-old estate, St Giles House. Through tireless research and resourceful collaboration with craftsmen, restoration artists and historians, he created a thoroughly modern place for his own young family to live and grow.

But though his feet are planted in the English lands of Dorset, his roots run nearly as deep here in Charleston, where his ancestor, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, served as one of the first Lords Proprietors of the province of Carolina in the 1600s.

We caught up with Nick in advance of his upcoming trip to the Charleston Antiques Show this week, during which he’ll also headline a series of exclusive events with us, to discuss his thoughts on preservation, inspiration and what it really means to live with (and in) history.

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“After a series of tragedies, I would end up inheriting St Giles House in 2005, aged 26...I spent a lot of time getting to know the house—exploring the rooms; looking through books, letters and photographs; and reading stories about my ancestors. For the first time I allowed myself to dive deeply into its history. Reading about my family and imagining their lives at the house inspired me...

“In March 2012 we became the first generation to live there since my great-grandfather, who died in 1961. The house welcomed us with open arms, and it wasn’t long before we began to develop plans to restore further parts. The years that followed have been the most rewarding time of our lives.”

—Nick Ashley-Cooper, 12th Earl of Shaftesbury

You published your book, The Rebirth of an English Country House, about St. Giles in 2018, and everyone who didn’t already know the story of your family and this estate became instantly captivated by your narrative of restoring an ancestral home to its former glory. Have you always been interested in history?

I’ve always found the history of the family very, very interesting, and when it was actually my responsibility to represent it, I paid a lot more attention to finding out everything.

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But you didn’t do that by simply recreating the past, right? The estate had undergone a number of changes over the years, shaped by changing aesthetics, Earls, economic winds and varying approaches to preservation best practices in general. How did you balance that complex history in your own approach?

Well, that’s sort of the larger question, isn’t it? How do we treat these old places? It’s hard to do anything to these old places, they’re all absolutely wrapped in cotton wool at this point. And is that a great thing? And what is the potential impact of not respecting the natural desire of people to evolve these places? And at what point do you get trapped? And part of the magic at St. Giles is revealing the magic of the transformation? And of all of the characters who have approached the house with the respect it deserves in the context of their times, all the while expressing themselves. When you see twelve generations of a family evolve in one place, it’s incredible and fascinating.

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Still, in the end, you created a home for your own family that both honors those who came before and bears a distinctly modern footprint. How has your own view of preservation shaped your relationship with St. Giles House?

It becomes an almost academic question when you have an old building that has clearly changed a lot and you’re confronted with lots of different periods. Which one is more important? Which one is most worthy of saving? What was quite nice in my experience is that we came to it with very little relevant experience, so in some ways we just went with our gut. It felt like an easier choice to let our intuition lead us. Of course, we had experts and knowledgeable people around to guide us on the important matters, and we benefited from the considerable research that had been done on the house and archival material—architectural drawings, archaeological information, bills of sale. Those really informed the elements we knew we had to preserve. But there was also this sense that, amongst all of that, we wanted to put our own personality on it and gave ourselves some freedom to do that. And, again, our baseline was, we are really fortunate to have all of this, and we want—as much as is possible—to create a place that is interesting and livable. We didn’t want to create a museum. It couldn’t be a sterile environment. Quite the opposite: This is a living, breathing house and we wanted it to have that energy to it.

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Is that how the previous generations approached it?

My father was quite bold in some of the changes he made to the house in the 1970s. You know, in the ‘70s, you could do quite a lot more with these historic buildings than you can today. Now, everything is protected and requires strict permissions to change. But my father went in with a very clear vision that the Victorians had added things on unnecessarily, and had really taken away the essential symmetry and beauty that the Georgians had created—and that the original 18th-Century building had sort of been ruined as a result. In removing some of those additions, I think he made some major improvements and I’m really grateful that he did.

The rules of preservation are always changing...

When I do talks, one of the things I like to underscore is how it has not always been the case that people have viewed history with a sense of excitement. Sometimes, in the past, it has been quite difficult to take up the preservation cause, whether because of protections and impediments or because people have tended to be drawn more toward the future and modernism. Today, however, we are living in quite a good time for history.

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What do you most wish had been preserved from past inhabitants?

The one thing I really miss is imagery—of the more intimate, private spaces, I mean: the upstairs, the bedrooms, the behind the scenes shots that would never have happened in the more formal times of the past. The great luxury we have now is that we can take photos here, there and everywhere. I have very great photographic documents of all of the main formal rooms, but I don’t have any records of life in the bedrooms, kitchens and corridors, so we use our imagination for that. And that’s such a shame.

How would you describe your children’s relationship with St. Giles House?

It is fundamentally different than mine. It’s just their home. I never experienced it that way, and I never will, but I love how they live here that way. They understand that it’s a special place, and that people come here and pay to come here, but they also treat it like it’s theirs. It’s very normal for them. And they don’t yet have any sense of the burden of history. It’s all just fun and games for them.

My oldest is 8 today, and it’ll be interesting for him and me: how do we cultivate that knowledge, how do you form a positive relationship and bond with this estate in a very natural way?

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Which of the previous 11 Earls of Shaftesbury would you most like to invite over for tea and a chat?

Definitely, I would like to know the first Earl. He is an endlessly fascinating character who became the most famous person in the country, aside from the king. And the fact that he might have also brought John Locke to tea, and some of the biggest Enlightenment thinkers of their time, well, it’s hard to beat that kind of company.

Do you think he would approve of the work you’ve done to St. Giles House?

Truly, I think all of the past earls would all be bowled over by some of the things we’ve done—in good and bad ways. Leaving the dining room half-finished, for instance—that would be totally over their heads. Or the fact that we have a nightclub in the basement, or operate an event venue here. And that just goes to show how these places evolve, and how different generations always view and carry things over within the context of their own times. Which is, in the end, how these places survive.

At the end of the day, we’re all humans. We all have the same flaws and dreams and challenges from one generation to the next. And in that way, there are remarkably similar threads and consistencies that time cannot erase.

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Urban Electric lighting

Are you excited to return to Charleston, a place so deeply entwined with your family history?

My dad had been here for the tricentennial of Charleston in the 1970s, but he never really spoke about it so I only really started to find out about the connection to Charleston when I began delving into the family history in my early 20’s and read the biography of the first Earl. I first visited in 2016—the last time there was an art and antiques forum, I believe. It was fantastic, and I’ve been in touch with a historian down there who’s doing some work along the Ashley River, an archaeological dig that encompasses some of the old family property. The family had an estate for 60 or 70 years that has long since been sold off.

And that’s another really fascinating thing about history: It can also be looked at through the lens of the collective—a shared, societal history, as well as a very personal thing. In my case, I am quite literally living the next chapter of my family history.

For more inspiring insights from The Urban Electric Co. partners, check out our previous Eye on Design profiles.