Inn closure a blow to Summerville’s image

The Woodlands Resort in Summerville will close Sept. 15.

SUMMERVILLE — The night the Woodlands Resort and Inn opened in 1995, Joe Whitmire invited Nancyjean Nettles to dinner.

On Sept. 15, the night the world-class inn closes, he will be her guest.

Whitmire, the resort’s original co-owner, had invited Nettles because she was Summerville Downtown Restoration, Enhancement and Management director at the time, and worked with him as he developed the inn.

She returned the invitation recently to put a bookend on their experience with a place that has been called the last of the great inns in a town renowned for them a century ago.

Woodlands’ closing is a blow to an emerging image of this historic community as an upscale niche tourism draw — an image promoted partly with the Woodlands cachet.

While the Charleston metro area boomed as a retail and vacation mecca, historic Summerville struggled to find that niche. For years it dragged around a reputation as a place that didn’t support upscale retail.

The world-class Woodlands inn helped change that. Its uncertain future now has many people a little uneasy.

“A Laura Jones interiors, a Maggie Rose boutique, would not have happened 15 years ago. There were no ‘upper middle class’ shops until well after Woodlands established. It was absolutely the linchpin,” Nettles said.

What impact might its closing have? “I don’t know. I wish I could answer that, but I don’t have a good answer.”

Pine Forest Inn, The Carolina Inn, White Gables, The Squirrel Inn — the names reverberate in the legacy of Summerville.

They were international destinations, five-star inns of the town’s Golden Age, those early 20th century years when the horse-and-wagon farming community became a health spa resort destination. Its “restorative” pine air drew the well-heeled “from off,” and huge homes were built on woodland spreads that became today’s historic district.

They were days of fox hunts and horse races, the days when President Theodore Roosevelt was escorted by torchlight to spend the night before traveling on to Charleston.

The era made the place.

The Golden Age destinations had dwindled to little more than highway motels and drive-ins when Joe Whitmire came to Charleston in the 1990s.

He was looking to open what he called a hybrid between a gracious Southern plantation home and an English country house hotel. Somebody recommended Gadsden Manor in Summerville and Whitmire said, “Summerwhat?”

But he was captivated by the grand Lowcountry plantation home, the high white columns and cornices, the brick face on the manor that was built in the Golden Age by a Pennsylvania railroad baron as a winter retreat.

Whitmore’s refurbishment, an internationally acclaimed dining room and a staff of 80 people at its peak made the inn the only property in South Carolina to hold the Forbes Five Star and the AAA Five Diamond ratings for both accommodations and dining. It first achieved the AAA awards in 1996 and 1997, the Forbes awards in 2004. It’s never lost any of the four.

That’s rare air for a town that had become a suburban commuter community.

“It was almost like having a museum (of the Golden Age),” said Mayor Bill Collins.

But, like other high-end establishments in Summerville, Woodlands didn’t thrive. It hung on.

“It was an effort to balance the books. It was always a struggle,” Whitmire said. When his “silent partner” co-owner became ill, they couldn’t do it anymore. The place was sold — at what Whitmire calls a bargain price — to Salamander Hotel and Resorts. Then it was sold again. Each owner struggled.

Salamander is now in the process of selling to Tom Limehouse, Summerville Auto Auction owner and Woodlands club member.

Woodlands attempted to draw a global business, but its bottom line was the same as more modest local attempts to go upscale: People from Summerville would go downtown (Charleston) or elsewhere for a luxury experience, but people wouldn’t come to Summerville for one.

“As a club member and a lifelong resident of Summerville, it has disappointed me for years that the tri-county area — not just Summerville — failed to support this gem,” Limehouse said.

Well-heeled tourists now turn up in Summerville, stroll its vintage Hutchinson Square, nose through boutique shops and niche gourmet stops like Accents on Wine, owned by former Woodlands employees.

It’s unclear if changes at the Woodlands will have an impact on these types of stores.

With the purchase still in the works, Limehouse won’t talk about plans, and defers questions to Salamander resorts.

Rumors have ranged from bulldozing to condos. Community leaders say there is interest in maintaining the venue in some use, and that Limehouse is mulling and brainstorming ideas with them.

The town’s “cheap” reputation hasn’t been deserved, Limehouse said. Businesses in Summerville have long been hobbled by an overall lack of retail in Dorchester County: In other words, not enough reasons for people to come here.

“All Dorchester County has is Town (Hutchinson) Square. There’s not another large retail footprint,” he said, except for two big-box retailers on Dorchester Road. Azalea Square mall along Interstate 26 is in Berkeley County.

“I don’t know how (Woodlands) is going to play out,” said Collins, who has made a priority of enhancing tourism. The tourist draw of Summerville is its quality of life, he said. He wants to see the historic Woodlands venue maintained, but “I’m not interested in $100-a-plate restaurants. People are not going to come to Summerville for $100-a-plate restaurants.”