A 250-Year-Old Plantation Hits the Market for $9.5 Million
(Bloomberg) -- Jamie Constance has lived in California for 69 years, but when he was a partner in the Litchfield Co., a real estate developer based in South Carolina, he found that he was constantly visiting the state.
Together with his wife, Marcia, who’s a granddaughter of the billionaire Max Whittier, “we decided that it would be nice to have a place when we came down for board meetings,” Constance says.
They began to look in an area known for its gracious (and massive) plantation homes. “People asked me, ‘Had you always dreamed of having a plantation?’ ” Constance says. “And I said, ‘Definitely not.’ ” It was mostly, he says, his wife’s idea. “She said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a place like this, and put it together with chewing gum and baling wire and have our California friends come visit us?’ ” And so that’s exactly what they did, purchasing the 920-acre Chicora Wood Plantation near Georgetown, S.C., for about $1.4 million in 1984.
When they bought it, Constance says, “we didn’t know the amazing history of the Allston family,” the plantation’s original owners. But as he began to research the property during its multiyear, multimillion-dollar restoration, “it all became very interesting,” he says. Among many tidbits, Constance discovered its original owners were very distant cousins. Now, he says, “I’m writing a book about it.”
The book will be the final chapter in the couple’s 34-year involvement with the property. After initially putting it up for sale for $15 million in 2013, they’ve cut the price to $9.5 million, listing it with Elliott Davenport of Hall and Hall. “I’m 89 years old,” Constance says. “It’s time to be more or less settled in one place.”
The land was originally deeded to John Allston by King George II in 1732. It then passed down through the Allston family (technically leaving it for a few years when female family members ceded the property to their husbands), until it came to Robert Allston, who was the governor of South Carolina from 1856-1858.
Before the Civil War, the Allston family was spectacularly wealthy—Robert Allston owned thousands of acres of land, and, at the time of his death, “he owned something like 600 slaves,” says Constance. (The online South Carolina Encyclopedia lists the number as 690.)
Under the governor’s stewardship, the original 1700s-era home was enlarged and updated, and the land was cultivated and improved.
After the war, the slaves’ status was changed to “sharecroppers.” It was a distinction that effectively meant now they were provided “a field to grow their own rice in, which they could then sell,” Constance says.
The Allston family’s fortunes were greatly diminished and never fully recovered. Allston’s daughter Elizabeth Pringle published the book A Woman Rice Planter, under the pen name Patience Pennington (really), which detailed her various travails; when she died, her heirs finally sold the property to the Waddell family in 1926, who held on to it for nearly 60 years.
By the time the Constances purchased the land, virtually every aspect of the property was in a state of disrepair.
“The [Waddell] family only came there on weekends to shoot, when duck season was on,” Constance says. “It needed a lot of love.” The house reeked of tobacco smoke (the walls and ceilings had tobacco smoke stains), and the plaster walls were flaking.
Constance says that he approached the house—some parts of which were more than 200 years old—with a single goal in mind: to preserve as much of it as possible.
“The contractor came to me and said, ‘Mr. Constance, we’re going to have to remove the wooden laths,’ ” he says of the thin slats of wood used on walls to hold plaster. “I said: ‘Over my dead body.’ These laths have absorbed the spirit of everyone who ever lived or worked in this house, and I didn’t want one splinter removed that wasn’t absolutely necessary.” A solution involving wire mesh placed over the laths was duly found.
The house is 10,000 square feet, with 10 bedrooms and eight and a half baths. It’s built on four stories; the ground floor is brick, and was historically used by servants, while the second floor is high enough that residents can look down the bluff to the Pee Dee River, which runs through the plantation. (“It was built that high for the breeze,” says Constance.)
They did a minimal amount of remodeling; there’s a piazza that runs around three sides of the house. The rear had been walled off, Constance says, so they took down the wall and built a row of window panes. The couple also changed the position of the breakfast room and took down a tower of bathrooms that had been tacked on to the home sometime in the 20th century.
Other than that, the house is much as it was 150 years ago. The interiors have been impeccably maintained, he says, and a kitchen on the property even has a cooktop whose iron was made on the plantation.
Constance estimates there are at least nine original outbuildings, all of which he restored. The carriage house is now used for garden equipment, and the house occupied by the master slave (who was in charge of overseeing other slaves) was turned into a guest cottage; even the threshing mill was updated and shored up.
The couple added 80 acres to the property. Five were occupied by a hunting lodge owned by a group of businessmen (“it was a mess,” Constance says, “and we didn’t want someone to come along and build a 7-Eleven or something”), and 75 acres were owned by a descendant of one of the Allstons’ slaves. When he put the property up for sale, the Constances snapped it up.
In total, the grounds extend a mile on both sides of the Pee Dee River and include a 2-acre lake. The house has a private boat ramp and dock; a creek also runs through the property.
The plantation had ceased operations as a rice farm years before. Five hundred of the acres were used to grow pine trees for paper mills; the Constances cut all of those down, cleared out the roots, and put in a turf farm instead. “We wanted to find something that could offset the expense of the plantation,” Constance says. “It paid its own expenses.”
The rest of the property was either returned to nature or groomed into gracious lawns and gardens. They also added a tennis court.
“After all the money that’s been spent on it, lovingly, if we were 60 or even 70 we wouldn’t want to sell,” Constance says. “It’s time, as they say, to move it along.”
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