Wayback Lowcountry: Tabby

Examining the oyster shell concrete that helped build the Lowcountry

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Tucked down a quiet country road on St. Helena Island, the ruined Chapel of Ease stands sedately under live oaks. Lizards scatter over its walls, which offer a study in texture: weather-stained plaster, eroded brick and a ragged surface of shell bits bleached white by the sun. The remains of this 18th-century structure are a hauntingly beautiful monument to one of the Lowcountry’s most enduring crafts, a type of oyster shell concrete known as tabby.

Where to see tabby:

Chapel of Ease, St. Helena Island
Sheldon Ruins, Yemassee
Stoney-Baynard Ruins, Hilton Head Island
Wormsloe Plantation House ruins, Isle of Hope
Historic Horton House, Jekyll Island (Ga.)
Tabby Manse, Beaufort
Adam Strain Building and walls, Darien (Ga.)

For settlers arriving to the southeastern coast of what is now the United States, the challenge of how to build permanent shelters took some sorting out. There were lots of trees, but the humid climate made rot a problem. Stone is not naturally occurring here, and a scarcity of clay made production of bricks impractical, so these materials were the domain of an elite few. On the other hand, there were lots and lots of oyster shells. Heaps of them in old Native American trash middens could be burned down to make quicklime, a free if labor-intensive local product that beat expensive imports. The lime was then mixed with water, sand and more shells to create a durable building material. Poured into wooden forms and tamped to produce compact layers that could be stacked atop one another, this homemade concrete became the floors, walls, foundations and even archways and columns of colonial buildings. Once hardened it could be smoothed over with a protective coat of stucco, and it withstood the elements for centuries.

LOCAL LANDMARK  A trip to St. Helena Island is not complete without a stop at the
Chapel of Ease. The chapel was built in the mid-1700s. 

It’s not perfectly clear how the tabby technique came into use here. Some historians believe it originated in North Africa, making its way into Spain via the Moors; the Spaniards then brought it to Florida at St. Augustine in the 1500s, and the British basically stole it from the them. Examples of tabby structures can be found as far north as Staten Island, New York (Abraham Manee House, circa 1670), west along the Gulf Coast at Pascagoula, Mississippi (LaPointe Krebs House, 1757), and as far afield as the Caribbean. Essentially a form of the ancient construction technique known as rammed earth, tabby may date back as far as the Roman Empire.

WORMSLOE PLANTATION Wormsloe was a Colonial fortified house on the Isle of Hope in Savannah. The tabby ruins include portions of the 8-foot wall surrounding the home, bastions on the corners, a well, a cellar and a double-hearth brick chimney.
ADAM-STRAIN BUILDING The Adam-Strain Building, built circa 1813, was a mercantile store and ship chandlery in Darien, Georgia.

Using abundant local materials and the labor of enslaved people, the fortresses, plantation homes and public buildings of the Lowcountry were erected. Beaufort County became a hot spot for tabby, and today there are more of these ruins here than anywhere on Earth. Although the technique was born of necessity, it became an elegant status symbol during various tabby revivals, when period styles were named after local patriarchs like James Oglethorpe or Thomas Spalding. The process evolved as shell middens were exhausted and Portland cement was introduced, plus the end of slavery made labor hard to procure; tabby was in its final days by the 1930s, and constructions from this late period were often of poor quality due to builders using ocean shells without bothering to wash the salt off them. Today the original method is rather shrouded in mystery, while what passes for tabby is just stucco with a few random shells slapped over it.

HORTON HOUSE Horton House is a historic site on Riverview Drive in Jekyll Island, Georgia. The site has been meticulously preserved over the past 100 years as an example of coastal Georgia building techniques and as one of the oldest surviving buildings in the state.

There is, however, one modern craftsman who is instigating a tabby revival of his own. Bluffton artist D. Pierce Giltner of Rustic Installations has developed a unique process of tabby production that is adapted to suit the nouveau coastal chic. His stunning fireplaces might feature driftwood inlays or reclaimed beams as mantles, and his outdoor firepits are vaguely reminiscent of the shell middens that first gave rise to tabby 500 years ago. Whether in the ethereal ruins of colonial plantations or the opulent spaces of today’s luxury homes, tabby is truly a timeless art. LL

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