Skip to content

Historic Beaufort Foundation seeks court help to further protect Robert Smalls’ house

Historic Beaufort Foundation seeks court help to further protect Robert Smalls’ house

Working to preserve and protect an important house in South Carolina’s history, the Historic Beaufort Foundation today asked a state judge to interpret a 20-year-old legal easement on the McKee-Smalls House where Congressman and Civil War hero Robert Smalls once lived.

The Conservation and Preservation Easement protects the exterior architectural integrity of the house and grounds as well as ensuring the house remains a private residence while allowing some public access, according to the easement terms and the intentions of the easement donor.

The house has been a private residence since it was constructed, but the current owners, Billy and Paul Keyserling, are seeking to change that by opening the residence to tour groups on a daily basis.

Robert Smalls was born into slavery, became a Civil War hero, was elected to US Congress and in his later years served as Collector of the Port of Beaufort. His offices were in what is now known as the Thomas Law building but was then the Customs House (920 Bay Street) in downtown Beaufort.

“The McKee-Smalls house that stands today has had alterations and seen extensive remodeling and bears little resemblance to the house and grounds of the mid-1800s,” said Cynthia Jenkins, executive director of the Historic Beaufort Foundation and an acknowledged expert in preservation.

“The building was built to be a private home in the early 19th century and has been continuously used as a residence since.” Jenkins said “Not only is it protected by the easement — a legally binding contract — its’ use is also protected by City of Beaufort Zoning Code.”

David and Marilyn Atwell donated the easement to HBF in 2002 to “assist in preserving and maintaining the premises and its architectural, historical and cultural features,” according to the legal document, and to ensure that the home would be used only as a residence.

For 20 years, and each time the McKee-Smalls house has been sold, that easement is part of the deed. When a property encumbered by an easement is sold, real estate agents are obligated to fully explain the meaning of the restrictions to the new buyer. Easements are recorded with the deed and protect the property forever, Jenkins said.

Historic Beaufort Foundation’s Board of Trustees asked the South Carolina Circuit Court for a declaratory judgment affirming the meaning of the Foundation’s easement on the McKee-Smalls house.

The easement stipulates the owner of the McKee-Smalls house will make it accessible to the public at least four half-days a year, and at other times of the year to allow educational organizations, architectural associations, and historical societies to study the property. The suit asks for a declaration that the easement doesn’t state and was never intended to allow daily tours.

The easement addresses only the exterior of the property and the grounds at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort’s National Historic Landmark District. The interior has seen extensive updating over the past decades. HBF has offered to accept an interior easement to further protect the property.

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards are the guiding principles for maintaining the integrity and significance of historic buildings. The first of the 10 Standards states that buildings should be used for their original purpose as much as possible – in this case, a private home, Jenkins said.