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IN THE BEAUFORT STYLE

As you stroll along the streets in Beaufort, South Carolina, the charm and sense of nostalgia are unmistakable. There is something special about Beaufort. Is it the breeze off the water, the tree-lined streets, or the beautiful old homes reminding us of the past? It is the combination of these elements that truly represent Beaufort and it’s unique and idyllic charm.

Combining architectural beauty and its distinct terrain, Beaufort’s city plan was designed to fit the landscape and benefit from the Beaufort River. Beaufort is defined by its coastal setting, strategic location, and the architecture that developed over three centuries. Out of this design, a unique sense of place and a link to the Lowcountry has developed. One of the most defining forms of Beaufort architecture has grown out of this marriage of coastal land and history: the Beaufort Style.

The Beaufort Style is based on five architectural elements that are conventionally found in more rural settings. Different from the rowhouses of Savannah or Single Houses of Charleston, Beaufort homes were built on spacious lots—more like smaller versions of plantations. Colonial settlers of Beaufort designed homes with techniques that incorporated the topography and climate of the area—and specifically the South Carolina Lowcountry. Large windows take advantage of the breezes from the water, deep porches provide shade from the hot summer sun, and low-pitched roofs don’t hold onto the heat. But what architectural elements particularly set the Beaufort Style apart from other historic southern architecture?

The Beaufort Style typically employs these architectural elements:

A raised foundation of usually tabby or brick.

Tabby is a type of concrete that is made by combining lime, oyster shells, water, sand, and ash. This was popular foundation used by colonist settlers up and down the coast. A tabby foundation was an extremely popular choice in Beaufort, due to the abundance of oyster shells on the shoreline. Beaufort County has one of the largest collections of tabby structures in the country.

Houses that do not have a tabby foundation, will have a brick foundation. As bricklaying was an art previously known to settlers, it is no surprise that some homes feature this type of foundation.

A southern orientation toward the Beaufort River. Early settlers of Beaufort knew the importance of capturing cool breezes off the river. 

Porticos and piazzas on the southern façade, facing the river and the breeze.

Beauty and function combine with beautiful porticos and piazzas on houses  throughout Beaufort. Shady porches help residents manage the heat, but they also serve as key architectural elements that characterize the Beaufort Style.

Low pitched roofs.

Again, in an effort to beat the heat, colonial settlers focused on low pitched roofs that would prevent the heat from being trapped in the house. This picture of the Tabby Manse House shows this popular roof line.

A T-shaped plan.

The Beaufort “T” first appeared in the late Federal Period and allows for better cross-ventilation in the back area of houses. In 19th century examples, we can see the T-shape design being extended to outdoor spaces. The T-shape was tied to piazzas wrapping around three sides of the house—always on the southern elevation.

A distinctly southern town, Beaufort, South Carolina architecture makes it unique. The Beaufort Style has grown out of a combination of architectural preferences and livability. Large city lots and stately residences  bring the grandeur of plantation  architecture  to the city—a unique combination only found in Beaufort. As observed by Russell Wright in the early 1970’s, “Beaufort houses, free-standing on large lots, are more akin to the architecture of southern plantations of the period, plantations brought into town, than anything found in Charleston or Savannah.”

 

In The Beaufort Style

When carefully studied and observed the full range of the city’s history and its changing patterns of development unfold to provide a unique sense of place: a tangible link to Lowcountry history through the architecture of an evolving community.

South Carolina’s second oldest city’s plan was designed to fit the land and to meet the waters of the Beaufort River on three sides. Historic research has yet to reveal who designed the original Town Plan for Beaufort but clearly the grid pattern, typical of the early 18th century, was designed to provide a healthy open community that would benefit from the natural breezes off the water.

The original plat was made up of 397 available lots. Four public lots, intersected by Carteret and Calvert (now Craven) Street, dominated the interior portion of the southeast segment of the grid. Most of the rectangular blocks east of Carteret Street were divided into six or more lots; those to the west into four or six. Twenty-four lots of lesser size, presumably planned for commercial use, were sited on the north side of the unnamed street adjacent to the river. Lots twice the size of the average plots for mansions were set to the northwest of the waterfront overlooking the marshes. What is now Wilmington Street was the west boundary of the town, Prince Street the north boundary and East Street the east boundary.

“It is a remarkable fact that these neighboring three communities developing simultaneously, should have each so successfully created their own high quality, individual architectural design.”

“Beaufort’s houses, free standing on large lots, are more akin to the architecture of southern plantations of the period, plantations brought into town, than anything found in Charleston or Savannah.”

Beaufort was, and is, defined by its coastal setting
and strategic location and the architecture that developed
over the past three centuries took full advantage of both.

The Beaufort Style

The Beaufort Style is based primarily on five key architectural elements that generally are found in more rural settings. The large houses of Beaufort were built on spacious lawns unlike the Savannah urban rowhouses and the famous Single Houses of Charleston. 

Architectural elements typical of Beaufort are:

  • a raised foundation usually tabby or brick,
  • a southern orientation (toward the Beaufort River),
  • porticos and piazzas on the south façade,
  • low pitched roofs (so not to trap as much heat in the summer), and
  • a T-shape plan.

Beaufort’s colonial era settlers adopted building techniques based on the topography and climate of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Houses with five bay wide facades raised high above the ground to better catch the breezes and protect from high tides. Deep porches shaded the interiors while low-pitched roofs were employed so not to trap heat. The ‘Beaufort-T’, which seems to have first appeared in the late Federal Period, allowed better cross ventilation in the back rooms of the houses. Later in the 19th century we see the T-shape tied to piazzas wrapping three sides of the house – always on the southern elevation.

One early nineteenth century traveler described Beaufort as “the wealthiest, most aristocratic and cultivated town of its size in America, a town, which though small in number of inhabitants, produced statesmen, scholars, sailors and divines, whose names and fame are known throughout the country.”

Beaufort’s residential architecture evolved and adapted to the styles and fashion of each major American architectural period. Historic Beaufort Foundation was established to protect and preserve the architectural characteristics of this important and unique colonial period settlement.

Our challenge in the 21st century is to ensure our historic past is not overwhelmed by modern life and that we protect the precious tangible elements of this very special place. 

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