Beaufort: the awakening of a sleepy southern town

Charleston vs. Savannah is a fevered debate whenever fanciers of antebellum Southern cities meet. At the risk of complicating the issue, I now have to ask: What about Beaufort?

This awakening little port at the tip of the South Carolina low country can't match Savannah or Charleston in size or in number of historic buildings, but what it has is so thoroughly and unselfconsciously Old South you may find the other two cities relative imposters. At the same time there are signs, good signs, that Beaufort -- the indigenes say BEW-fuht -- is coming to terms with the 1980s without abandoning its magnolia-scented past.

The first change I noticed when I pulled into town after a 70-mile drive from Charleston (Savannah is just 45 miles distant) was the absence of the trashy old waterfront that had been festering on the brink of the downtown business district for generations. In its place was Waterfront Park, an attractive strip of plantings, tabby-type pavement, swings, pavilion, and boat marina. Though he is too modest to admit it, the young Beaufort mayor, Henry Chambers, was the inspiration for the park.

"Henry Chambers ism Waterfront Park," Mrs. Riley Gettys, a member of the Historic Beaufort Foundation, told me, "and the whole city is indebted to him." While deflecting the credit, Mr. Chambers said the $5.2 million project, completed in the late 1970s, "proved to be the salvation of a small, sleepy Southern town."

Mr. Chambers, who has been mayor since 1969 and who grew up in an old Beaufort house ("We were too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash"), is now applying his restorative powers to the somewhat shabby business district along Bay Street. "We're not trying to be a Williamsburg," he cautioned. "We want a working, living downtown."

Beaufort, though smaller and still sleepier than Savannah and Charleston, gives away nothing in the concentration and style of its 18th-1790 and 1860 Beaufort prospered on Sea Island cotton and became, in the words of one historian, "the wealthiest, most aristocratic and cultivated town of its size in America." Long after its decline, it lived on its memories, the sweet antebellum memories, until finally in the late 1960s some anxious Beaufortians took note of the remarkable though sagging houses and got a huge chunk of the city declared a National Historic Landmark District. The old river town was awake.

One thing that distinguishes the "Beaufort Style" is the scale and the setting of the big houses. For all their distinction and beauty, Savannah and Charleston houses are built close together. In Beaufort they stand alone on large, landscaped lots, like so many plantation mansions brought to town.

Few are more imposing than the house called Tidalholm. Shaded by enormous oaks with a towering black filigree gate in front, Tidalholm was built on the edge of the marshy Beaufort River to take the southwesterly breezes off the water. Perhaps you've seen the house: it was occupied by Bull Meecham and his family in the movie "The Great Santini." Pat Conroy, who wrote the novel of the same name and who grew up in Beaufort, only slightly fictionalized his hometown as Ravenel in the book. What else but Beaufort could he be portraying when he weites:

"Each house was a massive tribute to days long past. In one of the houses drawling conspirators had planned the secession from the Union; in another, Sherman himself had slept after his long march to the sea."

One can readily see that the old values died harder here. Beaufort was indeed a hotbed of secession. Robert Barnwell Rhett, still a favorite son to some, was known as the Father of Secession, and on the corner of Craven and Church stands a salmon and white, woodsided Beaufort style house where the first meeting of secession was held in South Carolina.

There are one-house tours in March, but at other times only the John Mark Verdier House and the George Elliott House are on public view. The Verdier house, where Lafayette spoke to Beaufortians in 1825, is being restored room by room as a museum by the Historic Beaufort Foundation. At midday, I was more interested in visiting the Elliott House because it has Beaufort's best restaurant, the Anchorage, on the first floor. It is also home to the chef, Edouard Jaggi, his wife Maria, and their six children, a Swiss family from Neuchatel and more recently Cleveland, where Papa was executive chef at the Union club.

The Jaggis wound up in Beaufort because, as Maria told me while I lit into a mountainous Salade Montpelier full of fresh shrimp, crabmeat, and Swiss cheese, one of her daughters had spotted an add in a French-American newspaper asking someone to take over a restaurant in a historic building in a historic city they'd never heard of "which we of course called Bo-fort."

Unfortunately there are no historic inns where one can spend the night -- just two motels in the old section and a scattering of places on Route 21 a few miles from town. But Savannah has the smart, restored "1790" inn, and Hilton Head, with its assortment of sleeping and sporting accommodations, is less than an hour's drive.

Beaufort's reawakening has, of course, brought residents from afar, eager to revive the old houses, of which about 100 are part of the historic district. I relaxed on the upstairs piazza, or porch, with the Jack Traynors, Yankees by way of New York who had just moved in and who had a large scaffolding blocking the main entrance. Jack Traynor talked of putting in a Beaufort-style lacebrick fence around his house. "But we won't overpower theirs," he said, pointing to a similar fence surrounding a house across the street. Such are life's important considerations in the town that's No. 3 and trying harder.

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