Age and time had taken their toll on Brookland Plantation on Edisto Island, but designer Robert Chesnut had a vision of restoring this disintegrating dowager.
Brookland Plantation's solitude is witnessed only by those few who know her. She's hidden away, this relic of history, reigning over 60 acres of high land fed by tidal creeks. She has weathered wars, hurricanes and neglect. She was home to several families, a school for boys, and infrequent vacationers seeking refuge.
Brookland Plantation, an early Greek Revival-style home, underwent extensive restoration that includes modern essentials.
In recent decades the brutal, humid summers took a toll on the house. The porches, steps and columns were disintegrating, falling away.
Then three years ago, someone with a vision of what the dowager had been, and could be again, arrived to save her.
"You say 'abandoned' to me and that turns me on," landscape architect and renovation designer Robert Chesnut says as he stands in the front drive of the expansive property. "I didn't know places like this still existed. I thought they were all gone, but then I heard about this place on Edisto Island that was in the middle of nowhere."
The first day Chesnut came to Brookland Plantation (which has also been known as Brooklands and Brooklines) he ignored the aged sign that proclaimed the property was not for sale.
"Dr. Wannamaker, the owner, had put that big sign on the gate 35 years ago because he was fed up with people trying to buy it from him," Chesnut says.
Chesnut wanted to see what was behind the fence for himself. He jumped over the gate, but an overgrown pond with a center stand of trees and underbrush shielded the house from his view.
"All I wanted to find was a little house on a creek. When I saw this house sitting here, I got goose bumps on my arms. I just went, bingo, bingo, bingo," says Chesnut.
He was ready for the challenge of bringing the deserted old house back to life.
"I have a reputation for doing things right, whether I'm going to own the property for a year or own it for a hundred," says Chesnut. "I love to see beautiful old houses saved and properly done. I don't believe in tearing down."
Today the obstructing island has been removed, the pond dredged. The water is clear and ripples in a light breeze blowing in from the marsh. The old carriage path, now a driveway, takes a left curve around the pond and past the old oaks that still grace its bank. The house is briefly obscured from view, only to re-emerge in its renovated splendor. On still nights, Chesnut says, the pond is a black mirror, reflecting the lighted house, an elegant welcome to anyone coming through the gate.
"At night it's incredible," says Chesnut.
In the daylight Brookland is a vista of marsh and wooded areas that confirm the feeling of isolation and overwhelming beauty.
After Chesnut discovered Brookland, he made an offer on the house and found himself in a bidding war against a partnership.
"I wanted it bad and they wanted it bad," he said.
He won with a bid of $1.75 million. He subsequently learned that the two men he was bidding against were people for whom he had renovated and landscaped other properties. They were surprised, too, because if they had won the bid, their plan had been to hire Chesnut to do the renovations. The three, Chesnut, Pat Barber and Cas Danielowski, formed a limited partnership. Barber and Danielowski stepped back and let Chesnut work his magic on Brookland Plantation.
The house was still basically solid, despite the neglect. Chesnut had the foundations shored up and the work began.
"The house was solid white, but if you stare at this house in the summer with white siding, it will put crow's feet around your eyes. So I used antique piazza white for the trim, the original muted aquamarine for the shutters and a new color for the siding.
"I wanted to do a color that wouldn't show dirt, so I went into the marsh. I got a ball of pluff mud and took it to the paint store and told them I wanted that color. And they said, 'Wow.' ''
The pluff mud color blends with the tree trunks and the woods. The result is a house that is a natural extension of the pastoral site. At high tide it seems to rise out of the marsh.
The core of the house was built of black cypress in about 1803. The side pavilions were added later. Long-gone slave cabins once stood between what are now grand old oak trees.
"There were a couple of little cabins there and a couple around the semi-circle," says Chesnut, pointing to an area that borders the creek on the front right. "In the 1860s the property went through the War Between the States and was abandoned."
In the 1960s, a missionary couple bought the plantation and turned it into Brooklands Home for Boys. Remnants of the school are still there. The old school bell is mounted in the back garden, retrieved by Chesnut from the sellers who had removed it.
"The bell belongs here," says Chesnut.
A rope swing hangs from a tree at the edge of Shingle Creek and a stir of boys' voices from the past rush through the oaks.
"Men who were boys at this school would come up while we were working on the renovation and tell us how they would swing out on this rope and drop into the creek," says Chesnut.
At high tide, the creek surrounds the property. At low tide the stream is barely there, creating a 15-foot drop from the bank. Remnants of the original dock blend with new planks to create a floating dock.
The renovation included adding new stucco to the chimneys of the 10 working fireplaces. The original dogtooth brickwork was retained, says Chesnut. A new copper roof replaced the old tin one, which was laid on top of the original cedar shingles.
Of the four original columns supporting the portico, the two center ones are gone. The two remaining columns needed serious cosmetic work. Chesnut took them to Charleston, where they were put back together by Southern Lumber. Sculptor and restoration artist Nancy Roth did the restoration of the column capitals.
"The wood was very old. Every now and again I would run across a nail that definitely looked very old," says Roth. "A lot of the cleanup involved chipped paint and rotted places that had to be filled with epoxy and re-carved, new wood carvings that had to be attached and basic cleanup," says Roth.
The massive lantern that once hung over the front porch had been stolen, so Chesnut had John Gantt re-create the lantern from photos. Gantt is known for his hand-crafted copper lanterns. Over the past 35 years, he has created fixtures for Charleston landmarks such as Market Hall and the William Aiken House, and for new constructions, including the Market Pavilion Hotel.
Missing sections of siding were painstakingly made to match the texture of the original remaining pieces. On close inspection, it is impossible to determine which are old and which are new. "Thirty percent of the wood had rotted. I wanted it to be done right. We didn't put a slick new board next to a rough hewn one," says Chesnut.
The shutters were replaced and painted the original muted aquamarine color.
New pegged, teak steps ascend from an old Charleston brick landing. Two self-watering urns flank the brick walk. The missing front porch was rebuilt.