Hidden at the end of an avenue of oaks on Johns Island sits Fenwick Hall, an early eighteenth-century plantation house. The plantation was alternately known as Gibbes’ plantation, Head Quarters, Fenwick’s plantation, and the John’s Island Stud (for its association with horse racing in the eighteenth century) before it finally received the name Fenwick Hall at the end of the nineteenth century. South Carolinians have long been fascinated with Fenwick Hall’s historic owners, who supplied wartime intrigue during the Revolution and provided inspiration for more than one ghost legend. Fenwick Hall stood witness to hurricanes and war, surviving activity and occupation in both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, only to fall into disrepair in the early twentieth century. The stately plantation was fully restored in the 1930s, then converted unceremoniously into a rehabilitation facility for the wealthy. Development has whittled away at its once extensive acreage. In the twenty-first century, Fenwick Hall has returned to use as a single-family home with over fifty acres still intact.
Intrigue from Historic Owners
In 1702, Governor Robert Gibbes received the original grant for the three thousand acres where Fenwick Hall is located. Gibbes was part of the wealthy contingent who came to Carolina by way of Barbados. He was deputy to the Lord Proprietors, member of the Provincial Assembly, and Sheriff of Berkeley County in addition to being the Governor. His family thrived in Carolina, and his oldest daughter married John Fenwick, the namesake of the plantation.
John Fenwick’s older brother Robert was the first of the family to immigrate to Charlestown, arriving aboard the Loyal Jamaica in the seventeenth century. He was born to a prominent English family, though he did not have a title. John followed him to South Carolina and quickly acquired property, including what would later become Fenwick Hall. John is given credit for building the current house circa 1730, which legend states replaced a log cabin on the site. Any three-hundred-year-old property is bound to have myths and errors mixed into its history. Historian Robert Stockton has questioned such an early construction date and noted that log construction is not a Lowcountry tradition, so the early house was probably not a cabin. Regardless, the current house likely dates before 1750, based on materials, style, and slight interior asymmetry found there and at other early plantations in the area. The stately hip-roofed Georgian mansion has two fronts, one facing the river and the other the road. It was built from locally made bricks laid in Flemish and English bond, with accent bricks above the windows, possibly imported from England. It sits on a high raised basement that functioned as a storage cellar. The large interior rooms have high ceilings, cypress paneling, mantels with Greek Key patterns, and chair rails with hand carved Vitruvian scroll motifs.
Historian Samuel Stoney noted in 1938 that “Fenwick Hall marks the cresting wave of prosperity that came over the Low Country in the decade after the end of the Proprietary Government with its last complications of Indian wars and piratical incursions in the Low Country proper. The house also signifies the arrival at considerable wealth of an interesting family.” Stories circulated that pirate treasure is still hidden somewhere on the plantation, leftover from John’s era of ownership. John served as Commissioner of Indian Trade, and, during his later years, the colony nearly went under during the Yamasee War of 1715, in which local Indian tribes fought to expel the colonists for three bloody years. Archeologists have found Native American pottery at Fenwick Hall, as well as early colonial European and slave-made goods. Legend states that a curious brick tunnel leading from the house to the Stono River was an escape passage in case of Indian invasion, although it postdates the Indian threat and measures twenty-two-inches wide and thirty-inches deep, too small for an escape tunnel but well suited for draining the house site.
Fenwick Hall’s owners made use of its extensive marshland in the Colonial period, cultivating it as rice fields. Later, the high ground was planted in Sea Island cotton, an exclusive sought-after variety. At its largest, the plantation was forty-five hundred acres.
Edward Fenwick, John’s son, inherited the house and thirteen thousand acres from several plantations in 1747. Edward owned an additional eleven thousand acres, five hundred slaves, and a Charleston townhouse. He was married twice, first to Martha Izard, who died, and then to Mary Drayton in 1753. Mary bore fifteen children, including two sons, Edward Jr. and Thomas. Legend states that one of Edward Fenwick’s daughters eloped with an Irish coachman. The couple was caught the following day and brought back to Fenwick Hall, where Edward put the young groom on a horse with a noose around his neck and made his daughter whip the horse into motion, thus hanging and killing her husband on the spot. Some say she died of a broken heart and still roams the house, while others tell of a headless horseman with a noose round his neck roaming the plantation. There is no documentation of the hanging, only stories told over the centuries.
Around 1750, Edward added flanker buildings to the Hall that were used as a stable and a coach house for his extensive equestrian activities. Like many of his peers, Edward loved horse racing and was a founding member of the Carolina Jockey Club. He even traveled to England to purchase horses for his racing enterprise and breeding stable. Fenwick Hall boasted a one-thousand-acre savannah for grazing, with fenced enclosures for stallions and mares with foals. Edward could not resist competing, even during the American Revolution when he and a Tory officer conspired to race, despite Fenwick’s fear that “it can’t possibly be done with secrecy.”
Politics on the eve of the Revolution caused the Fenwick family great strife, as Edward Sr. was a staunch supporter of the American cause, and his sons were loyalists. Edward Jr. was almost disinherited when he married the daughter of loyalist neighbor Colonel John Stuart. Edward Sr. died in 1775, leaving Fenwick Hall to Edward Jr. and Thomas, and numerous slaves and acreage to his wife and other children. During the British occupation of Charlestown in 1780, Sir Henry Clinton made Fenwick Hall his base, leading to the nickname “Head Quarters,” as the plantation was known after the war. Edward Jr. welcomed the British, but turned out to be a double agent who provided intelligence to American General Nathanael Greene in 1782. Thomas was a true loyalist and even helped his sister-in-law, Sarah Stuart, escape house arrest from the Patriots. After the war, the brothers fled to England, but Edward Jr. returned to South Carolina and was able to regain his citizenship when Greene and local Patriot politician Henry Laurens vouched for him. Fenwick Hall avoided confiscation by the Americans because of Edward Sr.’s prolonged estate case (unresolved during the war) and because of Edward Jr.’s intelligence activities.
After the war, Fenwick Hall was auctioned by Edward Sr.’s executors. The ad read: “A large proportion of a valuable body of land on Johns Island, within seven miles of the city, whereon Mr. Fenwicke resided, to be disposed of in three or four tracts of six hundred acres each, the whole of it well timbered and wooded, and having good landing places on the river; the advantages of these tracts too obvious to need description.”
John Gibbes, a cousin of the Fenwicks and descendant of original owner Robert Gibbes, purchased the plantation and added his personal touch with an Adamesque-style addition, all the rage in the late 1700s. The octagonal wing altered the Georgian symmetry of the house but provided additional entertaining rooms with the latest large-pane windows and ornate wood paneling of white pine, moldings of cypress and mahogany, and delicate plasterwork. Gibbes died in 1803, and his heirs sold Fenwick Hall to Joseph Jenkins, who sold it just three years later to Robert Brown, a Charleston factor. Benjamin Reynolds bought the plantation in 1817 and lived there until his death in 1826. He was a planter and politician from St. Helena, and a noted Patriot during the Revolution. Dr. Daniel Jenkins Townsend took possession in 1840 and owned it during the Civil War, when the house was used by both the Confederate and Union forces. Fenwick’s cotton was burned and abandoned in the field, and the house was robbed of its furniture but miraculously was not destroyed during occupation. After the war, Townsend gave Fenwick Hall to his son, but he noted that after years of wartime neglect “the tract consisted of marshland formerly reclaimed but now overflowed by the tide and useless in cultivation.”
Thomas Peck bought Fenwick Hall in 1876 and owned it until 1912. The next owner, H. B. Whilden, is given credit for changing the name from Head Quarters to the statelier Fenwick Hall. The Pecks and Whildens leased the plantation for livestock ranging and farming. John Limehouse opened a stand near the road and became locally famous for his pork sausage, homegrown on the Hall grounds.
In the 1930s, railroad executive and lawyer Victor Morawetz and his wife Marjorie purchased the house, which was in a severe state of neglect—the gardens were overgrown, the entry stairs were gone, window panes were missing, and the portico columns were rotting away. They lovingly restored the house and grounds, hiring the prestigious firm of Simons and Lapham to create colonial revival details where character had been lost to time. The firm designed a two-story kitchen wing, a colonial revival one-story piazza, a new frontispiece, and the current Palladian entry steps. They also had a new avenue of oaks planted as an entrance from newly created Maybank Highway. Marjorie was a founding member of the Historic Charleston Foundation and was an avid gardener, creating extensive formal landscapes, and even a cactus garden, at Fenwick Hall.
After Victor’s death, Marjorie sold Fenwick Hall to Helen and Claude Blanchard in 1943. The Blanchards lived seasonally at Fenwick Hall with their two sons, Claude Jr. and Robert. Robert composed a score called “Legend of Fenwick” inspired by the ghosts of the house as his master’s piece for a degree from Catholic University. It was played by the National Symphony in Washington D.C. and the Columbia Philharmonic. Claude Jr., a Charleston-area contractor, offered the twelve-hundred-acre property for sale in 1975. After several years on the market, he partitioned the property and sold the smaller portions. In 1980, new owners converted the colonial mansion into a private alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility, with the hefty price of nine thousand dollars a month per patient. The surrounding tracts of plantation land were annexed to the city of Charleston in 1985, bringing new zoning and the threat of development. The land on which Fenwick Hall sits was annexed five years later. In 1995, the facility closed and, shortly after, John Pernell and Martha Hamilton purchased the home on fifty-five acres and painstakingly restored it to its glory as a single-family historic home. They consulted with architect Glenn Keyes to document the house and guide the restoration. They removed the commercial kitchen and extra bathrooms and repaired the dozens of holes drilled through the walls for the hospital sprinkler system. Keyes noted that the Palladian windows are some of the earliest in the state, and the original floor plan is still a mystery. The Vintage and Fenwick Commons subdivisions have been built on portions of the plantation sold off over the years, but Fenwick Hall itself is safe in the hands of the current owners and will be an increasingly important bastion of the colonial history and architecture as modern development marches forward on Johns Island. — C.B.