By Carolyn Males + Art by Alexandra Sharma
This is the story of a house. A grand, two-story house of unusual design that sits alongside a reflecting pond amid live oaks on the banks of the Colleton River. With its arched windows, vaulted porch, cruciform layout, board-and-batten siding and steeply pitched gabled roof, this Gothic Revival gem looks like no other antebellum home here.
Rose Hill comes with a complicated backstory: a tale of ambitious dreams underpinned by the hard reality of enslaved labor and the disruption of a divisive war. Cycles of abandonment, restorations, stints as backdrops for a Hollywood movie and a rock video followed. And then there was that errant bit of electronic circuitry that almost brought it all down.
Over the years, stories — some true, some romantic embellishments, and some pure imagination — have wrapped around Rose Hill Plantation House like kudzu in Georgia. Trying to cut through the tangle of fact and fiction would have been a formidable task if not for Iva Welton, who painstakingly researched its history, delving into courthouse records, old correspondence and photos as she secured the home a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
But let’s save that part for later and start back in 1718, when the land on which the house would sit was incorporated into Devil’s Elbow Barony, a 12,000-acre tract granted by the English Crown to Sir John Colleton. Around 1823 James B. Kirk became the owner of a section of the property known as Rose Hill. Then upon the marriage of his daughter Caroline to her cousin Dr. John Kirk in 1838, the elder Kirk gave the estate to the couple.
Like so many grand houses of the era, the roots of this 7,000-square-foot Gothic Revival residence were entwined in the Old South of cotton, rice and indigo plantations. Enslaved men, women and children worked its fields and waited on their overseers and white owners. More than likely, they also lay Rose Hill’s brick foundation and hammered its boards in place.
Kirk’s Folly and rumors of war
Even as its walls went up and the red metal roof went on, rumors of war were circulating. When Sherman began his March to the Sea, the Kirks stayed in nearby Grahamville in what was then Beaufort District to wait out the conflict. Meanwhile, Union troops, who had broken into the house (but according to Welton never camped there) let it stand.
Caroline died the year before the war ended and by 1866 John and his son, William, had moved back into what the locals dubbed “Kirk’s Folly.” With the fields in ruins, formerly enslaved workers gone, and food scarce, they eked out a threadbare existence within Rose Hill’s roughed-in rooms as Kirk continued to see patients in Bluffton. Then for 90 years, it would sit unpainted, its interior latticed with scaffolding. According to some accounts, a succession of tenant farmers followed, as did owners.
A glimmer of hope arose in 1939 when “Lowcountry Gossip” columnist Chlotilde R. Martin wrote about plans to turn the house into a hunting lodge for the Rose Hill Plantation Club. But it was not to be.
The Sturgeon era
In 1946 two wealthy Northerners, John and Betsy Gould Sturgeon, stepped over the threshold and saw the partially finished house’s potential. They discovered that despite decades of transient residents, the house’s good bones remained. They hired architect Willis Irvin, popular with rich Lowcountry newcomers, to do something the Kirks could only dream of: They replaced the red tin roof with solid copper and transformed Rose Hill into one of the South’s most beautiful residences, with carved moldings, fine furnishings, art and appointments –– a home that Vogue magazine would celebrate in its pages. The forest on the property became their hunting grounds for wild turkeys, quail, ducks and deer.
But 32 years later, after both Sturgeons had died, the house once again stood empty — this time for three years. Then in 1981 Iva and David Welton, who’d heard of the property from Charles Fraser, came for a look with an eye to developing the old plantation’s acreage.
Historical acclaim and then …
For Iva, it was love at first sight. She and David had entered the old estate and followed a guard down the long oyster-shell road where he’d opened a big swinging gate flanked by brick columns topped with carved dogs. To the left was a big pond, and there, reflected in its water, stood this dramatic two-story house with its steep gabled roof and elegant arches. “Rose Hill just took my breath away,” declares Welton. Stepping into the foyer with its curved staircase, she looked up in awe at its high dome with its magnificent chandelier. From there she wandered on, marveling at beautiful hand-embroidered, silk-fringed draperies puddling on the floor, carved woodwork, the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper in the dining room and the drawing room’s rose Peche marble fireplace.
Soon after, the Welton family formed the Rose Hill Plantation Development Company, which bought the house and surrounding acreage to form a new gated residential community of the same name. (The Belfair property was included in the original purchase, but the Welton company sold off the bulk of it to Belfair Plantation in 1994.)
Meanwhile, Iva, smitten by the home’s elegant architecture and the Sturgeons’ fine restoration, had already begun compiling an impressive dossier on the house’s provenance, garnering Rose Hill its national historic designation. To her delight, the house soon became a popular venue for events. In 1986, she embarked on an eight-month rehabilitation project of cleaning, polishing, and repairing the house.
Then in the wee hours of February 10, 1987, Welton got a call. Rose Hill was on fire. Flames, sparked by faulty wiring in the closet of the pine-paneled room, licked at the newly rehabbed house.
The roof melted, the chimneys collapsed, and the grand chandelier fell and shattered.
In the end, the burnt shell stood open to the sky. Welton’s heart broke.
The development company built a new roof over the scorched walls and the charred heart-of-pine floors. It also restored the porch posts to more accurately reflect Kirk’s original design. But for nine years the house remained empty on its 12.5 acres as the rest of Rose Hill Plantation grew around it. Meanwhile, the company decided to sell the partially restored building and so Welton placed ads in the National Trust magazine Preservation to seek a buyer.
Rusty and Robin White bought the house in 1996 and embarked on a major renovation, imbuing the now private residence with their own style while opening it up for tours and events. After Rusty White died in 2018, the house once again sat abandoned.
As of this writing, Rose Hill home is under contract with a new buyer, awaiting its next chapter. LL
• Scenes for The Order of the Black Eagle, a 1987 action-adventure movie starring Ian Hunter as Duncan Jax, were filmed at Rose Hill. The plot centers on a counter-offensive against South American-based Neo-Nazis intent on resurrecting a cryogenically preserved Hitler. As the movie opens, an outdoor soirée, featuring local polo enthusiasts as extras, including an elegantly gowned Iva Welton, is underway at the house when suddenly a noisy flying contraption piloted by our James Bond-type hero and his tuxedo-clad pet baboon crash the party. The following day a polo match on the grounds provides a picturesque backdrop as Jax gets his marching orders. Stream it on YouTube.
• Back in 1992 an earringed and tattooed John Mellencamp, stepped onto the porch of Rose Hill. Cheering crowds raised their hands in celebration when his band sounded the opening chords of “Now More Than Ever.” As he sang out “If you believe…,” the young celebrants danced, bounced, and twirled on the lawn beneath the live oaks. Catch the four-minute video on YouTube.
“Rose Hill Plantation house’s magnificent Gothic Revival architecture attracted me as soon as I saw it. As I learned its backstory of surviving an abandonment of 90 years from the time of the Civil War and its later completion, and even later tragic fire, I was drawn closer to the house’s history and began to focus on its beautiful interior design, detailing and magnificence of construction. At times, as I painted, I sought out Rose Hill’s hidden gems like the original dome with beautiful stained glass, and other minutely detailed craftsmanship. My hope is that the essence and beauty of Rose Hill will continue to live.” — Alexandra Sharma