SUMMERVILLE — The Woodlands Mansion sits stoic on 11 acres at the northern edge of town.
The sprawling building’s antebellum-style architecture is immediately apparent, with four mammoth columns that reach to the roof, and crisp white fencing and stairways that line the front of the property.
In more recent years, the Woodlands has served mostly as an event venue and group meeting space, while occasionally hosting guests in its 18 bedrooms. But its history, which dates back to the town's beginning, is rooted mostly in being a home for the wealthy.
Now, the mansion is preparing for another chapter in its story. Local business owner Tom Limehouse, who has owned and operated the Woodlands since 2012, listed the property for sale in October for $6.95 million. He has temporarily taken the property off the market and is working on re-listing it.
“It is an incredible building and an incredible property," Limehouse said, "and just something special.”
A photo of the Woodlands Mansion, circa 1918, shows the original home, which was built in 1906. Brad Nettles/Staff
A storied history
The Parsons were a wealthy Maine family who owned railroads at the end of the 19th century and had property on Park Avenue in New York. They commonly ran in circles that included the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
They were so rich and well-connected, in fact, that in the mid-1890s, President Grover Cleveland summoned elder brothers Edwin and George to the White House and asked them to buy and fix the railroads connecting Georgia and South Carolina.
This forced Edwin to come to the Summerville area for the first time, and the Parson family's history in South Carolina began to take root.
In 1906, younger brother Robert bought 100 acres of land and built the family's winter home, later named Woodlands Mansion. He would stay there until his death in 1933.
Before Robert’s death, the family had become close with a philanthropist and author named Alain White. He started coming around the mansion in 1930, and would eventually buy the property — staying there, like Robert, until he died in 1951.
Upon his death, however, he didn’t leave the Woodlands to any of the philanthropic outlets to which he dedicated his life. Instead, he left it to Mrs. Ruth Gadsden, a close friend who lived nearby.
Ruth moved into the house she’d been left with her husband and stayed there for well over 25 years. Upon her death, she was buried between Mr. White and her husband.
After the Gadsdens passed away, the property fell into a state of disrepair for several years until it was purchased by a local couple named Deborah and Antonio Diz. The Diz’s opened the property to the public as a bed-and-breakfast called Gadson Manor Inn, but that was open only from 1986 to 1989.
In the early 1990s, an English billionaire named Lord Simon Sainsbury wanted to buy a Southern-style inn. After he was outbid for a different property, his realtor showed him the Woodlands property and he was immediately taken.
His team spent two years renovating the home, no expense spared, and ended up restoring 42 of the original 100 acres Robert Parsons had purchased nearly a century earlier.
In 1994, the Sainsbury team opened an inn with a staff of 80 to service the building’s 20 rooms. By 1997, the incorporated restaurant became the only five-star restaurant in South Carolina, and in 1998 the inn also earned a five-star rating from AAA. Both the inn and the restaurant remarkably held their five-star distinctions until 2012. Conde Nast once named the Woodlands the No. 2 inn in America.
"Just walking into the gracious dining room, you'll feel your worries trickle away, even as the superb service staff tends to your every need," a 2004 article published in The Post and Courier described. "Dining here is better than any spa treatment you'll ever receive, and it comes with gorgeous food, to boot."
Sainsbury fell ill in 2006, and while getting his affairs in order, the inn was sold on a limited market to Sheila Johnson, who owned Black Entertainment Television with her ex-husband.
She continued to operate the restaurant and inn at a five-star status for several years until she was ready to move on and sold it to local lawyer Johnny Linton. But Linton wasn’t an innkeeper by nature, and ended up giving the property back to Johnson.
By 2012, the Woodlands property was technically down to 11 acres, as a developer had been approved to build a few hundred homes on the remaining land. That year, the restaurant also ceased operations.
That’s when Limehouse stepped in to buy the property.
Looking to the Future
Limehouse and his team of three employees came in and had to give the grounds some tender love and care.
Much of the vegetation was overgrown, and some of the azalea plants and other gardens on the grounds grew to as high as 15 feet.
Now, the trees that have been on the property since the beginning comfortably flank the walking path through the gardens, by the separate pavilion event space, and circle back around to the mansion.
Since 2012, Limehouse has focused on returning the building to its place as a living shrine to what the town used to be.
“This is what Summerville was,” he said. “This is the one of the last grand residences, and though we’ve got more hotels coming ... this is the last grand hotel. Nothing like this will ever be built again.”
The rarity of the property has made it somewhat difficult to sell to the right buyer. Limehouse and Smoak & Associates Real Estate, which originally listed the property, confirmed that they had an overseas group from Britain come and look at the land several times. A few other parties have expressed interest as well, but the right fit hasn't been found. The property is temporarily off the market, although Limehouse plans to re-list it.
“It’s been a labor of love, frustration and a little bit of sadness,” said Becky Harper, who serves as a de facto manager for the Woodlands. “We have put our heart and soul into this property, and we have tried really hard to bring it back to its glory and do well by her.”
Limehouse and Harper are engaged and hope to spend more time with family, including Limehouse’s granddaughter, while focusing on some of the other properties he owns that have “gone by the wayside” while working so hard to fix up Woodlands.
“I think I’ve been a good steward, but I think it’s time for us to go to the next level again,” he said. “It will be bittersweet to sell it. I love the property, I want the right person or entity to have it.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect where the Parsons family was based. It was Maine, while younger brother Robert came to the Summerville area from Pennsylvania.