The history of the Lowcountry comes alive at Rose Hill Mansion.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photos by Lloyd Wainscott
Approaching Rose Hill Mansion feels like something out of a dream. Winding past the stately homes of Rose Hill, the gated community named in its honor, you pull past the rolling fields of the equestrian center until a crushed gravel path takes you to where a stark white Gothic-style peak appears between the branches of live oaks. It seems impossible, this exquisitely old-world mansion appearing among the Lowcountry lines and impeccably groomed landscaping of Rose Hill’s modernity. And yet here it is, occupying the same bend in the marsh it has since it was first built.
And here it has stood, as the town of Bluffton was built around it, burned to the ground for the town’s role in rebellion and then rebuilt as one of the South’s most desirable small towns. As the centuries weaved Bluffton’s tale around it, Rose Hill Mansion found a few stories of its own to tell. To hear them, one need only step inside.
A tour of the home begins where its striking architecture finds its most brilliant expression – the grand foyer, where a single spiral stringer staircase winds up to the living quarters of the home’s owners, Robin and Robert White. Three flags that replicate designs created by one-time owner Emily Kirk dangle from the railing. The flags symbolize the fledgling Confederacy that sprung from secession. Emily Kirk also painted several of the portraits around the main foyer that represent her father, Dr. John Kirk, and grandfather, James Kirk.
Proceeding through a door to the right, you come to what was once her father’s office. The room was one of the hardest hit when Rose Hill caught fire in 1987, and was almost rebuilt by the Whites. The fireplace came to the home from Scotland, while many of the artifacts come from previous tenants, including the bomber jacket of former owner John Sturgeon.
The ladies’ sitting room is also in this wing of the mansion.
Once transformed into a library by Sturgeon’s wife, Betsy Gould, who hosted the social elite of the day during the 1940s, it has since been returned to form as a proper sitting room just as it was in Emily Kirk’s day.
Heading across the foyer, the gentleman’s hunt room is dominated by a heavy baroque-style mantle that was shipped from Germany. It is decorated by Robert White’s extensive antique firearm collection, which includes John Kirk’s fire-damaged Enfield rifle that was rescued from the building’s rubble. A case in the middle showcases several antiques found by Robin White, who was an avid amateur archaeologist.
Passing through French doors we come to the conservatory and the mural walls painted by Robert White who still uses the space as an art room. Windows surrounding this space take in the stunning marsh views along with a wide patio that was built using bricks from the home’s fallen chimneys.
The tour concludes in the dining room, where several mementos lie hidden in plain sight. Look closely at the small original dining table and you might see the mark that Union soldiers burned into it. When he returned to his home after the war, John Kirk refused to have it fixed as a lasting reminder of the scars of occupation. Other details are found in Nancy Rhett’s portrait of the home. Look closely at the second-story window and you’ll catch a peek of the home’s resident ghost named the Elegant Lady.
These are but a few of the charms and intriguing stories held within these walls. To learn them all would take a lifetime, but you’ll enjoy plenty of them with an hour-long tour. Visit rosehillmansion.com to book a visit.
A Brief Timeline
1718: Rose Hill Plantation, once part of Devil’s Elbow Barony, is granted to Sir John Colleton by King Charles II.
1850s: Construction on the Rose Hill house starts by planter and physician, Dr. John Kirk and his wife, Caroline.
1860s: The work is halted by the Civil War as the Kirks sought refuge in Grahamville, S.C. Although the house is occupied after the war, the economy makes it impossible to complete the interior. Letters written between 1803 and 1868 reveal the pathos and tragedy of the Kirk family history.
1946: John and Betsy Gould Sturgeon purchase the house and employ prominent architect Willis Irvin to direct the completion of the house in a highly sophisticated manner.
1955: Vogue magazine publishes a feature story on the house, with photos of the furnished interior.
1980: The Rose Hill Plantation Development Co. (the Welton family) purchases the land for development of a planned residential community. In 1983, the Rose Hill Plantation House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the efforts of Iva Welton. The house is opened to the public for tours, and an extensive rehabilitation of the house is completed in 1986.
1987: A fire causes devastating damage to the entire house. The copper roof melts and caves in and the entire second floor and attic are gutted.
1990s: The copper roof was replaced and the porch’s posts are redesigned to the Kirk’s original wood and Gothic look. Inside, only the central domed hall & spiral staircase are restored and painted. The rest of the house remains charred, in an unfinished state.
1996: Rose Hill Plantation House is purchased by the Middleton White Foundation and restored as a private home.