Behind the trees, along the streets and tucked away in the corners of Old Town Bluffton Historic District are little-known secrets – literally the building blocks of the town’s long and unique history.
Most of the 55 buildings listed on Bluffton’s interactive Map of Old Town Bluffton are noteworthy for their famous inhabitants, specific building styles, architectural details or historic importance.
For example, the Huger Gordon House on Water Street was built in 1815. In response to the Secessionist Movement that originated in Bluffton, Federal forces landed at Hunting Island June 4, 1863, and proceeded to march through the town, burning nearly every structure in a straight line to the May River. This was the only antebellum house on the bluff to survive the Civil War and is one of 10 still standing in town.
The Garvin-Garvey House at 101 Bridge St. is an illustration of why the occupant as well as the architecture makes a place significant. Cyrus Garvin, a Freedman, was the first African American to own property on the bluff. The history of the house on the Town of Bluffton website notes that he bought 54 acres that might have belonged to his former owner, Joseph Baynard, on May 10, 1878, for $239.70.
Garvin’s house is on the same spot where Baynard had built his summer home. During that same June 1863 incendiary march, Baynard’s home was burned to the ground. In 1878, Garvin is listed as Cyrus “Garvey,” and deeds land and an edifice to St. Matthews Baptist Church Trustees. After that time, he is known only as Garvin.
The house is significant on its own. Samples of Reconstruction architecture are rare because of the “impermanence of the construction methods and materials,” noted the document.
Who keeps tabs on these buildings and why?
The Bluffton Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) is tasked with numerous responsibilities related to retaining and preserving Bluffton’s unique history. The members review applications for historic consideration in the Old Town Bluffton Historic District, make recommendations for a site to be included or removed, maintain the Old Bluffton Historic District National Register status, administer the District’s architectural regulations for new construction and renovations of existing structures, and determine appeals from administrative decisions.
It is a volunteer citizen-filled group that brings a passion for preservation as well as academic knowledge in architecture, history, real estate and landscape.
“What’s happening in Bluffton is we are still uncovering the history of Bluffton, which is curious because in a lot of areas history is being plowed down,” said Bruce Trimbur, HPC chair. “We just uncovered the foundations of a house in the new park, and we always thought the house was out in the river.”
Those foundations are believed to be the remnants of the Squire William Pope summer home on the site of the new Wright Family Park at the end of Calhoun Street. It was the Pope family’s summer home built around 1850, and was burned with others in 1863. The property’s carriage house and attached outbuildings are currently awaiting the town’s renovation efforts.
Historic preservation has been a long-time habit of Blufftonians. Incorporated in 1852, Bluffton became a National Register Historic District in 1996, meaning it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A district includes those structures that contribute to the character of a place.
In 2005, Bluffton was designated a Preserve America Community, a federal initiative that encourages and supports communities in their efforts to preserve and share cultural and natural heritages.
When it comes to designating a building as a contributing structure, an application can be submitted by several entities, including town council, the HPC, the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) administrator, or the property owner when public necessity, convenience, state or federal law, general welfare, research, or published recommendations on historic preservation justifies such action.
The UDO combines the zoning ordinance, subdivision regulations, and other ordinances related to land use development into one set of regulations.
Bluffton’s Director of Growth Management Heather Colin said that before any place is designated as historic or contributing, the applicant must first have a pre-application meeting with town staff.
“Then once the application is submitted it is reviewed by town staff, with a 10 business-day review period, a Historic Preservation Review Committee (HPRC) meeting, and followed by a review by full Historic Preservation Commission. Then it goes to town council for the first reading, and then a second reading and a public hearing,” Colin said. “The application also must be posted in the newspaper as well as on the property 15 days prior to the HPC meeting.”
When there are agenda items, the HPRC meets every Monday, and the HPC meets the first Wednesday of each month. Town council meets monthly on the second Tuesday.
“History of an area is so important to the value of a community. I love Bluffton because it’s quirky and authentic, and that’s part of the history of Bluffton that shouldn’t be lost,” Trimbur said. “I moved from the Lake Norman area to here because I thought Bluffton was wonderful in regards to the people and history. Preserving the buildings helps us discover the people. If we start plowing down buildings, all of that will be forgotten.”
That includes preserving not only historic homes like the Garvin house or Pope Carriage House but commercial sites, such as the Oyster Factory at the end of Wharf Street.
The factory was built in 1940, although oystering has been based on the site since about 1900, and in the area long before that. The first owner, Simpson V. Toomer, shipped his oysters to locales as far away as England. It’s part of the character of Bluffton, where once there were as many as five oyster operations in the area.
The company, now owned and operated by Toomer’s grandson, Larry Toomer, is the last commercial fresh oyster shucking house on East Coast, and the fourth oldest continuously operating business in South Carolina.
More quirky than architecturally or historically important, there’s the Fripp-Lowden House on Calhoun Street. Built in 1909, the house was first owned by Alfred Fripp. The house was most renowned in the past for an extensive garden, and as the place where his wife bred a new camellia, named “Sallie Fripp.”
Any one of several criteria can qualify a site, according to Section 3.25 of the UDO. Some contributing factors include: it is the site of an event significant in history; the structure individually, or as a collection of resources, embodies distinguishing characteristics of an architectural type, style, period, or specimen in architecture or engineering; the structure has yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in pre-history or history; or the structure is associated with a person or persons who contributed significantly to the culture and development of the town, region, state, or nation.
One individual who contributed significantly to the culture and development of Bluffton was Michael C. Riley. The Sarah Riley Hooks Cottage on Bridge Street was built by him in 1940 and is an historic structure.
A son of Bluffton, Riley was born in 1873. Among other achievements, Riley was the first Black to be appointed as a trustee to the Beaufort County Board of Education. He worked to establish the first Black elementary and high schools in Bluffton on Goethe Road, and they were named in his honor. After that school was torn down, a new elementary school was built on Burnt Church Road and is named after the entrepreneur and educator.
His daughter, Sarah Riley Hooks, was born in 1922 on the Bridge Street property. After her father built the house in 1940, she lived there until her death in 2002.
“By keeping these buildings, we also keep the people and the history of the people alive. We need to always keep that in mind,” said Trimbur.
Making the town’s history accessible to the public is the nonprofit Historic Bluffton Foundation, which owns and operates the Heyward House Museum and Welcome Center at 70 Boundary St.
Built in 1841, the structure is an early Carolina Farmhouse style brought here by planters from the West Indies.
Though the building is currently closed to the public, informational materials are available to visitors on the frequently cleaned back porch. To schedule a 45-minute walking tour, call the Heyward House at 843-757-6293.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.