Though it stood worn and tattered as a backdrop for the day’s event, the Squire Pope Carriage House at the May River end of Calhoun Street was celebrated Feb. 2.
That day, the Town of Bluffton kicked off a rehabilitation project for the 150-year-old structure, with family members present who once lived in the two-story house overlooking the river. Members of the community, staff of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, Town staff and partners in the project joined in the celebration.
In her opening remarks, Mayor Lisa Sulka said, “This is not just a kickoff (of this project), but also a chance to celebrate this park that opened a couple of years ago, but we didn’t have a chance to say ‘yay.’”
This rehab project is the last part of the park project, she said.
She referred to the Wright Family Park, located on the waterfront and including a public dock, named for the last family to live in the house. Family members present were acknowledged and applauded.
Sulka noted that the house had survived the Burning of Bluffton in 1863 and continues to stand strong and to hold “lots of stories.”
Some of those stories were then told by Augustine “Gus” Wright III, affectionately known as Pastor Gus, now of Colorado.
Wright said the thought of preserving the house started with Joannie Heyward, a neighbor of the family in Bluffton, who said “I’ve got an idea,” which sparked numerous long-distance conversations.
He said his father, who had died just 11 months prior, was excited about the Town’s plans. “In his memory and in his honor, I want to say thank you and well done,” Wright said.
Wright shared memories of playing video games in his bedroom on the second floor, family dinners in the kitchen, and the fact that the original house didn’t have plumbing or electricity.
“Homes become part of a family’s life forever. This house is magnetic in its personality. This house has evolved with the times,” Wright said. “I hope it will be fixed up as it deserves.”
Sulka then read part of a letter Wright had given the Town after closing on the sale. “Our hope is that this property will be a beautiful park. One in which the birds sing their melodies, which have been sung for hundreds of years, the true song of the South. Our hope is that this park will inform the locals as well as guests of the way things were, the beauty that is present, and dreamers will dream dreams of the world to come.”
Sulka said the letter has guided the Town designers and engineers in their plans for the house.
The Wright family sold the house jointly to the Town of Bluffton and Beaufort County, through its Rural & Critical Land Preservation Program, in May 2017 for $1.5 million, with the understanding, Sulka said, that the Town of Bluffton will manage its rehabilitation and operations once it is finished.
Before any construction work began to stabilize the house, the Town invited the Metal Detectives, Missy Malool and Bunny Williams, to bring their metal detectors to the grounds of the park to potentially find artifacts related to the home’s history. A number of items were found, documented and turned over to the Bluffton Historical Society for preservation.
A living part of the home’s history that is being preserved is the camellia bushes that once grew on the property. Only three remained when the house was sold.
A group of Master Gardeners were called and began to learn about ancient camellia varieties that had long been growing in Bluffton. The set out on a quest to find and identify as many as possible, calling neighbors and knocking on doors.
Alice Fraser headed up the effort. “We didn’t know much about camellias when we began,” she said. “But we watched a lot of YouTube videos.”
The women learned how to propagate the shrubs through a long process called “air layering.” It starts in the spring with identifying the plants whose cuttings you want, then preparing a few branches to be treated for rooting and later cut.
Fraser said they treated 120 plants and got a 80% success rate after six months. The group recently planted 10 heirloom camellia bushes in the park.
The house has been stabilized so that work can begin. Plans are to retain as much of the house as possible, including repairs rather than replacement of doors and windows where possible. New mechanicals will be added, such as electric, heating and air and plumbing.
The rehabilitation is expected to begin in March. Meadors Consultants will work with the Town to guide the process.
When complete, the house will service as a visitors center for the Town.