It’s been four years since Flat Rock’s historic homes were last opened to visitors, but “50” has a definite ring, so the wait was well worth it. This month’s tour marks the half-century anniversary of Historic Flat Rock, Inc., and the first time the area’s three most storied antebellum homes have been shown together. Two of them are newly renovated, and one of those two was saved from outright destruction.
“These three estates are huge and very special,” confirms Galen Reuther, tour organizer and long-time Historic Flat Rock board member. “And all are very different from each other.”
But they do share an era and an original mission. All were built in the first half of the 19th century, when wealthy plantation owners on the coast fled the Lowcountry heat in such numbers that Flat Rock became known as “the little Charleston of the mountains.”
Stately Mountain Lodge, c. 1827, is the oldest of the three, rescued from bankruptcy court and demolition in 2015 through Historic Flat Rock’s efforts and now restored and privately owned. The 7,000-square-foot home was built by Charles and Susan Baring, who also built St. John In The Wilderness Episcopal Church as their family chapel after the estate’s original chapel burned down.
Nine years after the Barings began building Mountain Lodge, Saluda Cottages — the plural name possibly refers to former outbuildings — started to take shape. Its first owner was the grandly named Count Joseph Marie St. Xavier de Choiseul, a consul to Charleston and Savannah. Ironically, the French nobleman wasn’t responsible for the ornate exterior architecture of Saluda Cottages, which originally had a much plainer farmhouse look. The embellishments were the idea of the Siegling family, also of Charleston, who directed the mansion’s Second French Empire look in the 1880s. At the height of the Civil War, it was owned by Christopher Memminger, the Confederacy’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Like Mountain Lodge, the estate is still privately owned and newly restored, its 20 surrounding acres protected by a preservation easement.
Three years after Saluda Cottages was built, Lowcountry planter Andrew Johnstone began work on Beaumont in 1839, using slave labor from his Georgia rice plantation. At first a summer second home, Beaumont became the Johnstone family’s permanent residence when they fled their hometown in advance of the Union troops who soon occupied it. Johnstone was shot to death by a band of pillaging “bushwhackers” in the dining room of Beaumont during the war. (It’s unknown if these deserting soldiers were Union or Confederate.) The mansion, now anchoring the similarly named subdivision off Kanuga Road, assumed its present form in 1909, when its then-owner undertook a major renovation of the house and grounds. It, too, had fallen into disrepair, when it underwent a second major restoration during the 1980s by its present owners.
While obviously popular, billiards wasn’t viewed as the most virtuous pastime in the 1800s. “That’s why Mountain Lodge has a separate Billiards House and Saluda Cottages had a special billiards room on the third floor,” says Reuther, who also notes the full-sized ballroom at the latter destination. She reveals that Mountain Lodge was originally built with a deer park, like an English manor. But stocking private grounds with prey in a rural community of hunters wasn’t the best idea. “It didn’t last long,” she notes.
Cultural tidbits like these last forever, though, and the local group’s goal is to maintain the houses that shelter the stories. “Historic Flat Rock has preserved these estates in perpetuity,” says Reuther.
Historic Flat Rock, Inc. presents The 50th Anniversary Tour of Flat Rock Homes Saturday, July 21, 10am-4pm. The self-driving event is $35 per person pre-purchase, or $40 at the door. The homes’ addresses can be found on the rack card that comes with the tickets, available online, at the Hendersonville Visitors Center downtown, at the Wrinkled Egg in Flat Rock, or at the Old Post Office of Historic Flat Rock Museum/Cultural Center (open Thursday and Saturday, 11am-3pm). Carpooling is available at Flat Rock Village Hall. No children under age 10. Car or golf-cart shuttle is available from the properties’ lots to the entrances, but houses are not wheelchair accessible. See historicflatrockinc.com for tickets and more information.