The “Castle” in Beaufort, SC

On December 5, 1859, a home builder in Beaufort named J.S. Cooper began construction on the property of Dr. Joseph Fickling Johnson at 411 Craven Street. It can be assumed that this project was to be a masterpiece, designed like a house that existed in England. (Sadly, we cannot see the sister mansion today because it was destroyed in World War II.) The Beaufort house is built of brick and covered in faded plaster. It has seventy-nine windows to ventilate twenty-three rooms, and eight fireplaces were necessary to create enough warmth in the winter months. The front veranda boasts six massive columns which are uninterrupted, stretching two stories high, representing Greek Revival Style architecture.  Water from the Beaufort River flows alongside the property, creating a moat effect and prompting the nickname: “The Castle.” [1]

Dr. Johnson had special-ordered porch railings, mantelpieces, and ironwork to be shipped to Beaufort, but these items were caught up in the Union naval blockade and never arrived. Pictures taken during the Civil War of the outside of the house show that it was also missing its balusters and handrails on the front porches.[2]  Undaunted, Dr. Johnson and his family moved into their new house in August of 1861, before the marble mantels and ironwork were installed and before the stairs were made for the rear entrance. The Castle was the last mansion/town house built in Beaufort before the Union invasion.

In the backyard, there is a small brick outbuilding which was used by the family as a laundry, dairy[3] or a kitchen house.  When Ft. Beauregard fell in the Battle of Port Royal, the family prepared for a hasty evacuation. Their prized china was hidden beneath the floorboards of the outbuilding, and they left town in wagons loaded with furniture and other goods. The Union soldiers moved into the house for lodging initially. While they were drinking, Mr. Smith Johnson, a nephew of Dr. Johnson, rowed across the river in a skiff and saved two small stools and a hurricane candle shade.

The Castle was later used as a hospital for contraband slaves. According to a Peoples Real Estate advertisement, the doctors wrote patients’ names and addresses on the walls, and these inscriptions “may still be seen penciled on some of the upstairs walls.”[4]  The brick outbuilding, hiding place for some of the Johnson valuables, was 548717_450513081658416_1691344613_nused as a morgue. “Ironically, the bodies of dead soldiers were to provide a macabre protection for the china buried beneath the floor…” [5]  Dr. Johnson was later able to recover and sell the goods. He paid $2000 in back taxes to reclaim his house during the Direct Tax Sales of 1863.

It is also believed that the soldiers put up a temporary set of stairs for their use in the house, and this was replaced by Dr. Johnson himself. Apparently not the best carpenter, his handiwork was called a “killer staircase” by Bruce T. Sherwood in 1988. Sherwood wrote this in a letter to the homeowners about doing renovations because the stairs were all different heights, making them dangerous to descend upon. [6] Dangerous or not, descendants of the Johnson family retained ownership of the Castle until 1981.

Trivia of the “Castle:”

  • The brick outbuilding may have functioned as a kitchen or cookhouse, and it was separated for two reasons. It was important toSLIDE0136 separate the kitchen in case the fire got out of control and caught the house on fire. Also, with high summer temperatures, families wanted to keep the fire far from their living space to stay as cool as possible. Most of the original cookhouses are missing from Beaufort properties as they did have a tendency to burn every two to three years! Every historic house is different- some have additions to make room for a full size kitchen, and other homeowners have added a sink, refrigerator, and oven into any available corner.
  • The wedding scene from the movie Forces of Nature was filmed in the front yard of the “Castle” in 1998. Giant fans were set up on Craven Street to make the wind for the hurricane scene. The movie starred Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock.

[1] A Guide to Historic Beaufort. Beaufort: Historic Beaufort Foundation, 1999. 40-41

[2] “The Castle; Part 1 Certification” The Doctor Joseph Johnson House; The Castle; Historic Beaufort Foundation Fall Tour of the Homes; 1990; General History

[3] National Register of Historic Places; Inventory-Nomination Form; United States Department of the Interior National Park Service; Form 10-300 (July 1969)

[4] “411 Craven St.- The Johnson-Danner House, circa 1850” Peoples Real Estate

[5] Mary Kendall Hilton “Twilight of South Saw Fine Beaufort ‘Castle’ Abuilding” Savannah Morning News Magazine 2-20-66

[6] Bruce T. Sherwood on Nov. 7, 1988 in a letter to Jennifer and Bill