Architectural and Landscape Development Ruins of the Edward House Plantation, Spring Island South Carolina
Agricultural development on Spring Island during the early nineteenth century was accompanied by programs of architectural and landscape improvement. Although George Edwards eventually bought out the interests of his two sisters, he remained attached to that portion of the island he inherited from his mother. Here Edwards extended an existing house built overlooking the Chechessee River, added outbuildings, and created an extensive landscape setting which combined both formal and picturesque elements. This enlarged residence was to serve Edwards during intermittent visits to the island, which probably decreased in frequency after 1830.
The earliest extant structure in this location is ruined. Incomplete tabby walls represent the lower story of a rectangular house which had two exterior end chimneys of which, only the massive bases now survive. Fabricated as wall construction proceeded, these bases were cast solid in tabby up to the level of the main living floor which was raised about 6'-0" above grade. Fragments of tabby piers show that wide porches once extended along the building's two principal (east and west) facades, timber steps doubtless giving access to interior spaces via the porches. But the walls enclosing these living spaces are now lost, a loss which leaves the dwelling's original form uncertain. However, additions made by George Edwards suggest that the upper walls, like the lower ones, were made of tabby, the house probably comprising two and one-half stories, with main living spaces raised over an elevated basement. Unlike most local plantation houses, the house faced east and west, the easterly exposure giving fine, open views over marshes to the Chechessee rivcr and islands beyond.
The date of this structure is uncertain. In dimension, construction, and typology it closely resembles the first tabby dwelling built at the B. B. Sams House site on Dataw Island, a building attributable to the 1770s or 1780s. If as early as the mid-1780s, then the Phase I dwelling may have replaced an early or mid eighteenth-century house occupied by George Barksdale I (a staunch Loyalist) which is said to have been burned during the American Revolution. Alternatively. it could have been built as the nucleus of an entirely new settlement by John Edwards, Senior, presumably before the death of his wife Mary in 1791. Either way, the dwelling proved too small. and perhaps too humble, for George Edwards who set about enlarging it by the addition of two symmetrically organized, tabby-built wings probably some time between his marriage in 1801 and 1816 when he took up semi-permanent residence in Charleston, South Carolina.
Each two-story wing enclosed one large living area at the upper level raised over an elevated basement. Circulation between new spaces and the old plantation house was effected by introducing a square U-shaped porch wrapped along the enlarged building's river front. Besides linking living spaces at the upper level, this device performed an aesthetic function, unifying the tripartite massing produced by the major additions. On its land side, the old house probably remained unaltered or nearly so, an oak allee (almost certainly introduced by Edwards) projecting the dwelling's central, east to west axis into surrounding landscapes.
The building program adopted by Edwards was ingenious since additions in the form of wings allowed new construction to be treated as two structurally independent units, simplifying formwork fabrication and allowing exterior tabby walls to be cast without any vertical breaks. New space distributed over two smaller units rather than one large one also brought advantages. Floor and roof spans were minimized and the size of timber framing members reduced. Dead loads were also kept down, allowing use of relatively slender exterior tabby skins to enclose new living and storage spaces.
Perhaps as importantly in its owner's eyes, the scheme echoed new fashions which began permeating plantation architecture of the Low Country during the last decade of the eighteenth century. One relevant group of houses attributed to this period is characterized by loose, fragmented or sometimes linear plans which seem vaguely Palladian in inspiration although it is difficult to find any house or viJJa illustrated by Palladio's Quato Libri which offers more than distant parallels. Instead the group occupies a territory standing between "polite" and vernacular architecture, adapting "bookish" architectural models to local climatic and social needs.
Apparently built overlooking the South Santee River in a single phase by Rebecca Bruton Motte, Eldorado (now ruined) incorporated three principal blocks arranged to produce an open court on one side. Lindner and Thacker observe: "The design of the house was such that each room had windows on three sides providing a view of both the river and the avenue. Two wings were perpendicular to the main body of the house which rested on an arched brick foundation."
George Edwards almost certainly knew this house since his wife's plantation, then called the Ferry now Crow Hill, was located only a mile or so away on the North Santee. This proximity suggests Eldorado may have served as an exemplar when Edwards came to enlarge the old dwelling on Spring Island. If so, he made changes to the model. Rebecca Motte's scheme was slightly refashioned through a process which typifies folk building especially in peripheral geographic locations, the designer disassembling then reassembling various plan components to produce an original and yet not altogether unfamiliar building form. Edwards also chose to follow local building precedent, opting for tabby construction common about Beaufort District, rather than the timber framing carried on brick arches used at Eldorado and elsewhere in the Santee region.
On Spring Island, all exterior tabby surfaces of the enlarged Edwards' house were stuccoed (and old surfaces perhaps re-stuccoed), the stucco everywhere being scored to simulate high quality stone construction, which although admired was beyond the means of even the wealthiest of local planters. Seen from a distance, the illusion created by scoring must have been convincing, especially after the stucco finishes had been burnished and newly tinted with lime washes. The fragmented massing contributed to another illusion, making the house seem large and expansive even though actual living spaces were few in number and relatively modest in area for an elite house of the period.
Gardens and avenues further enhanced the design, creating a park-like setting about the dwelling modulated by a series of small outbuildings. On the river side, Edwards erected two small freestanding flankers in tabby, this creating an architectural composition centered on the main house extending about 244'-0" north to south along the Chechessee shore.
Both flankers contained one undivided space raised about 3' or 4' above grade. The north flanker was perhaps a storehouse where high quality foodstuffs such as hams, rice and preserves were kept for the owner's use. The southern one perhaps functioned as the plantation owners' s office or alternatively a rather luxurious privy. Each building was finished on the exterior with stucco. The south building had large glazed windows at its upper level was plastered internally, ghost impressions suggesting shelving or closets lined the walls.
A lavishly planted garden extended around the house. In February of 1862, this layout caught the attention of John Frederick Holahan, a marauding Union soldier, who described the scene in his diary as follows: "the immediate grounds were enclosed by a fence of Osage orange, trimmed as rectangular as a stone wail... Flowers grew everywhere in profusion and everything about us was calculated to delight the eye and overpower the senses with beauty and fragrance."
Holahan also saw three "magnificent avenues" on the main dwelling's land side "leading away at least half a mile." The long and memorable oak allee by which the house is currently (2003) approached is one of these. Trees belonging to the other two avenues still live although they are now difficult to distinguish among old live oaks clustered at the surviving allee's west end.
Slightly east of this point, the existing approach crosses a creek which flows roughly north to south. Impounded ca. 1968, the water course showed evidence of earlier artificial terracing before it was again altered to form a small lake during the early 1990s. Terraces visible in 1989 suggested that the creek once constituted an improved and picturesque element in a larger landscape design instituted before the Civil War. This impression is heightened by U.S. Coastal and Geodesic Survey charts based on surveys completed during the 1850s, the 1872 edition showing what is dearly a slave settlement located northwest of the main house laid out not in conventional parallel rows but rather in a less formal, curved configuration.
Picturesque landscapes inviting the observer into active participation with an orchestrated sequence of seemingly unpremeditated views which balance architectural and artificially "improved" natural features, are amongst the most transient of entities, disappearing quickly once abandoned. While few traces are extant, literary evidence indicates several local planters created such idealized settings for themselves, William Smith's plantation on the Combahee River in Colleton County, South Carolina, where according to Abeil Abbott "pleasure grounds" ornamented with "select trees, elegant and rare trees & bulbous flowers" were "visited un every part thro serpentine walks"[sic] being characteristic of the genre. At Smith's plantation, the slave settlement appeared not as a regimented collection of cabins or hovels as was so often the case throughout the Low Country during the early nineteenth century-but rather "as a group of handsome cottages" similar in intent no doubt (though different in form) to those cottages built for agricultural workers by British landlords influenced by Nathaniel Kent's Hints to Gentlemen of Landed Property (London, 1775, 1776) or other "improving" publications.
Although the near total loss of where were most probably consciously designed, picturesque features now make it impossible to say categorically that the landscape surrounding the house was similar, a structure erected near the main building just north of the existing oak avenue does demonstrate how certain members of the island's slave population enjoyed better than average living conditions. Incorporating two full stories, this tabby building contained four, single-roomed apartments arranged in pairs right and left of a central hall at the first and second floor levels. Each living space was heated and given three large, probably double-hung, glazed windows. The latter were almost unheard of luxuries in the context of contemporary slave settlements making-the Spring Island building with its carefully constructed-tabby wails, light, airy rooms and sense of permanence more reminiscent of urban slave structures than rural ones. Proximity to the main house, high quality construction, and visual prominence all suggest that the tenement, or Service Building as it has been designated, accommodated privileged, most likely domestic, slaves who perhaps traveled with George Edwards and his family between town and plantation residences.
Whether the far larger, resident slave population also enjoyed better than average living conditions is impossible to know. Archaeological surveys confirm that one settlement was located north or northwest of the main house but have yielded no definite architectural information. An absence of shell scatters only suggests that slave houses here were timber framed rather than tabby-built.
Nearer the main house, evidence is incomplete for outbuildings associated with day-today life as enjoyed by the owner and his family. Thus, nothing is known of any boat shed, stable or carriage house. Nor has information yet surfaced about the main kitchen which like an extant although ruined example at the Sams House, Dataw Island, was almost certainly a free standing structure located somewhere apart from but still very near the owner's living quarters. Holahan's eyewitness description suggests that hedges played an important role in organizing space around the main house, but whether these defined some kind of yard enclosure resembling the yard at the Sams House, Dataw Island or at Rosehill-on-the-Combahee (a tripartite house not unlike the Edwards House, known only from a painting in the Charleston Museum) cannot be said.
One other incompletely understood issue deserves mention. According to the inventory taken soon after George Edwards's death, the Spring Island residence was then sparely furbished. This could mean that in his declining years Edwards made infrequent visits to the island, leaving its management to a relative or trusted overseer. Or, perhaps furnishings (especially expensive or valuable personal items such as plate, china; glass and small pieces of furniture) traveled with him. Alternatively, it might be that such objects had been removed immediately after his death. Whatever the case, appearances had changed by February of 1862, when Union soldiers broke into the house. John Frederick Holahan records: "the building was large, roomy and imposing externally, and had been furnished with elegance and taste by the opulent proprietor of the Island. But vandals had smashed the grand piano, cut and mutilated the costly paintings and furniture and carried off the best carpets and other articles capable of removal...! appropriated some books from the extensive library and a "love of a writing stand" I know they would only be destroyed if left behind."
Jacob W. Oestervicker, who was then Spring Island's overseer, valued the furnishings abandoned after the Battle of Port Royal in November of 1861 at $2,000. The island's slave population represented a far greater accumulation of wealth, 263 slaves being valued at $144,000. Cotton was another valuable item. Fleeing in panic as rumors of Union landings circulated about the Beaufort District, the overseer or whoever else was then managing the plantation left behind eighty bales of Jong staple cotton worth $8,000, twenty-five wagons and carts, two carriages, four large cypress boats, quantities of plantation goods, foodstuffs and numerous animals including, or so Oestervicker said, 202 head of cattle.
The cattle were almost certainly hunted and slaughtered for food soon thereafter, groups of Union soldiers roaming the sea islands in search of food both for themselves and the half-starved groups of plantation slaves who, abandoned by their owners, flocked into Beaufort Town looking for sustenance and shelter. After having been thoroughly looted, there is clear evidence that the house and its dependencies were stripped of their more portable materials, for brick, timber and metals were especially sought after, and then burned. Subsequently, the main house fell into ruin, and was never rebuilt or re-occupied. Similarly, its dependencies such as the kitchen were destroyed or fell into disuse.
Removal of materials continued into the twentieth century, oral testimony and field surveys indicating that disassociated tabby was cut up, carried away, and re-used as sill supports for tenant houses before or during 1914. Later, probably during the 1960s, fallen tabby was used to face a causeway carrying the main approach avenue over the creek which skirts the settlement site on its east side. Around the same time, the then owner, Elisha Walker, replanted oaks missing from the avenue and installed a large bronze statue of St. Francis at the avenue's west end. Realizing that the tabby ruins had become critically endangered, Walker's heirs began a limited program of conservation and stabilization in 1985, with Colin Brooker acting as their preservation consultant. Further stabilization was carried-out for the Spring Island Company in 1992.