As Bluffton grows in both population as well as tourism, the more important it becomes to preserve and highlight the significant histories that have shaped not only the Lowcountry but also the nation as a whole.
The Rose Hill Mansion, located inside Bluffton’s Rose Hill community, on the equestrian side, represents one of these stories to be examined, celebrated and learned from.
The 150-year-old Victorian-style plantation house was built by first cousins-turned-lovers John and Caroline Kirk as a private residence in 1858.
Bluffton remained a hotbed for secessionist activity up and into the first shots fired in the Civil War. It was in the Rose Hill Mansion that Emily Kirk, daughter of John and Caroline, designed the first iteration of the secessionist flag, which flew in St. Luke’s Parish in 1860.
From there, the house took tumultuous turns in and out of wealth and poverty.
At one point, the once ornate living quarters housed chickens, while squatters and tenant farmers slept on the bare floors of the foyer.
The house was once again restored to grandeur after Betsy and John Sturgeon bought the house in 1946. They lived there the rest of their lives.
In 1981, the house and land were purchased by the Welton family. Iva Welton, who still lives on Hilton Head Island, worked to get the house listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Weltons completed another renovation in 1985 and opened the house for tours and events. Tragically, in 1987, a fire devastated the house, rendering it charred, empty and uninhabitable.
It wasn’t until 1996 that Rusty and Robin White saw the house listed for sale in a historical preservation magazine. They were instantly drawn to the house and arrived in Bluffton as potential buyers shortly after.
“What it looked like in the picture was a small and gingerbread-looking Victorian house, but the picture was actually taken before the fire,” said Rusty. “When I pulled up into the driveway and saw that it was not quite in that condition, to say the least, I was ready to keep driving.”
Robin replied to his concerns with “Oh, Rusty, it’s not that bad.”
The couple purchased the house and what followed was an extensive labor of love, featuring years of restoration work to turn the destroyed interior back into a private living space.
It wasn’t long before the Whites decided to begin hosting public and private tours to share their unique slice of history with the world.
Guests can participate in a guided tour of the first floor of the mansion, which includes a number of recreated, period-accurate rooms, as well as artifacts, historic documents, mementos and more.
“We’re really just hoping to be able to reach out and educate as many people as we can on the history of Rose Hill,” said LouAnne Takach, managing director of the Rose Hill Mansion.
The mansion also serves as a wedding venue, offering locals and out-of-towners the opportunity to celebrate on the historic acreage.
“The house is a bit of a crazy quilt with the whole history of the plantation and all the different lifetimes,” said Robin. “But this is without a doubt the most open and sharing time. More people have gotten into Rose Hill to see not only the house but the land itself.”
Going forward, the Whites plan on continuing their renovations by constructing a period-accurate slave cottage, chapel and barn on the land surrounding the house.
“The slave cottage is a teaching tool to remind us where we were 150 years ago. It’s something that needs to remembered and talked about,” said Robin.
For more information about the mansion or to book tours, weddings or rentals, visit www.rosehillmansion.com or call 843-757-6046.
Sam Posthuma of Bluffton is a freelance writer and production assistant for The Bluffton Sun.