Introduction To Beaufort Architecture

[singlepic id=52 w=320 h=240 float=right]The community which is now Beaufort had its beginning in 1710, when Barbadian planters, English indenture servants, tradesmen, and religious dissenters came here to seek their fortunes. These early settlers built houses of clapboard and of tabby, a durable cement-like material composed of oyster shells, sand and a lime obtained through the burning of oyster shells. As prosperity increased, the houses grew larger and more elaborate. Designed for airiness and coolness, the “Beaufort Style” incorporated elements of Georgian and Colonial architecture as well as those of Greek Revival and semi-tropical Spanish. House building in Beaufort reached its peak during the years 1820-1860. During and after the Civil War, the houses were sold at auction by the Federal Government. Only a very few of the original owners were able to reclaim their homes. Several were bought by former slaves, some by former Union soldiers, and several by Northerners who came to Beaufort as participants in the Reconstruction effort.

The “Beaufort Style” is a convenient but rather general classification as no one particular house incorporates all of its characteristics. It differs from the more urban designs of Charleston and Savannah in that the Beaufort house is free standing on a large lot, frequently a formal garden, and is oriented to take full advantage of the prevailing southwesterly breezes. It more nearly resembles the plantation house, brought to town, as some indeed were, and adapted to the summer heat and the dampness of the lowcountry.

Raised high on a sturdy foundation of stucco over brick or tabby, the Beaufort house is characterized by a two-story piazza, frequently extending partially around both sides of the house. There are notable exceptions to this as in the case of marshlands, where the piazza is only one story, or where the piazza is limited to a two story portico over the front entrance and a balcony immediately above, as in the case of John Mark Verdier House, Tabby Manse and Tidewater. The classic orders or variations thereof are frequently used for the columns, an excellent example being the Milton Maxcy or Secession House where the Ionic capitals are used on the first level of columns, and Corinthian capitals are found on the second story. The piazzas are supported by stuccoed piers or arches, usually left open for ventilation. Exterior stairways are most frequently centered, but may be just as effectively located to one side as in the John Joyner Smith house and, again, in the Milton Maxcy house.

[singlepic id=48 w=320 h=240 float=left]The main core of the house is usually T-shaped with chimneys inset or on the exterior side walls. The roof is low-pitched and inconspicuous. The typical floor plan provides central hallways on both the main and upper floors with an impressive stairway to the rear. Frequently there is a handsome Palladian window at the landing. There may be a garden entrance directly opposite the main entrance.

Ceiling heights, which range from fourteen to eighteen feet on the main floor, ornamental woodwork such as paneling, wainscoting, mantels and cornices, all combine to create an effect of elegance, airiness, and light. In the later homes, cornices and ceiling medallions are of elaborately molded plaster from which chandeliers of exceptional quality may be suspended.

Fireplaces and mantels have been given varied treatment. Several are noted for Adam-style decoration. In some of the later houses there was a vogue for mantels of imported Italian marble, and in the Joseph Johnson house and in Marshlands one finds an attractive use of 17th century Delft Tiles.

The total impression gained is that of a community of affluence, taste and cultivation but with a measure of restraint. A Northern visitor of around 1850 described Beaufort society as follows:

“Nothing in our largest cities can equal the display of carriages and equipages which, with the servants in livery, may be seen on a pleasant afternoon, when the mothers and daughters of these cotton lords take their accustomed airing.”

Although, as you walk through the National Historic Landmark District, you will be more apt to encounter a Ford or Volkswagen than a Surrey or Brougham, you can readily imagine how these homes appeared more than a century ago. We can be grateful that they have escaped “progress” and are still with us as continuing symbols of a gracious society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *