MONCKS CORNER — One of Charleston’s greatest preservation successes in the last half century actually unfolded about 25 miles north of the city.
As Mulberry Plantation is poised to change hands for the first time in about three decades, it’s a good time to revisit the story.
In 1987, the Historic Charleston Foundation sprang into action to save this National Historic Landmark from an uncertain fate.
The Cooper River plantation with South Carolina’s third oldest surviving home was up for sale, and there were little to no local zoning codes to protect the property from being converted into something, such as a golf course, that would have forever altered its historic character.
For the foundation, it was a stretch.
The preservation group was created to protect “Charleston and its environs” which rarely had been interpreted as anything this far away.
And the $2.86 million price, for a small nonprofit and a small revolving fund, was a seriously large sum. But Lawrence Walker, the foundation’s director at the time, was intimately familiar with Mulberry.
After World War II, he saved it in a different way, by purchasing it for his own family and opening its gardens to the public.
His period of ownership, which lasted from about 1946 to 1952, proved the site was too remote at the time to attract many paying visitors. So while Walker created some great family memories, his ownership didn’t provide a serious road map for the property’s future preservation.
When Mulberry came back on the market in 1987, as its then-owner Charles Atkins grappled with legal and financial problems, Walker tried something new.
The foundation purchased Mulberry, which already had an easement protecting the facade of the 1714 home.
Katharine Robinson, the foundation’s current director, says the Mulberry deal “was a big stretch,” but there was talk of a golf development, a subdivision and other potential buyers.
“Our trustees felt that this was something the foundation could do and didn’t really know what other entity might be able to do it,” she says.
(Mulberry Plantation has been, but shouldn’t be, confused with another historically significant Camden property with the same name).
Parker Gilbert, who ran Morgan Stanley, and his wife Gail bought Mulberry for their own use, particularly during winter months.
They paid about $300,000 less than the foundation paid for it, but the foundation was less interested in the money than Mulberry’s proper care. It didn’t hurt that the property sold after just six months, when Walker had anticipated that it might take as long as six years to sell.
“It was about finding the correct steward for the property,” Robinson says.
The foundation trusted the Gilberts so much that its expanded easements would come only after the sale.
The Gilberts gave the foundation easements that protected the interior of the 1714 house, prohibited the subdivision of its 800 acres, restricted any building on 35 acres of gardens (done by noted landscape architect Loutrel Briggs), protected the open sight-line from the house to its south property line, and ensured there always would be a 75-foot buffer on either side of its 2-mile-long entrance off Old U.S. Highway 52.
“It was the most comprehensive ever donated to the foundation,” Robinson says.
It’s hard to capture the essence of Mulberry in a single photograph.
The experience of its wooded entrance road giving way to a stand of grand live oaks with limbs so massive they rest on the ground, then winding up one of the Lowcountry’s highest natural hills to the home site, its surrounding gardens and its enormous lawn and distant rice impoundment goes far beyond any single image.
Chip Hall, the realtor now selling the property for $17.5 million, stops short of saying it’s the state’s finest plantation or most valuable, as many variables — from personal taste to acreage to location — prevents any easy superlative.
Instead, he likes to compare the property to one of the art world’s most valuable paintings.
“Mulberry is a Gauguin,” he says.
The Gilberts did much more with Mulberry than place easements on it and enjoy it for their personal use.
They secured the historic home before Hurricane Hugo struck and kept it in immaculate condition, even at the expense of their own comfort since air conditioning the house would have harmed its historic fabric.
They also made it more functional by hiring architect Jaquelin Robertson to design a complementary house now called North Mulberry. His design tucks the home inside a stand of nearby trees, away from the iconic view shed. It still offers a grand two-story space with a great view of the former rice field.
They purchased the adjoining plantation known as South Mulberry in 1991, caring for its historic 19th-century home, one that architecturally resembles Lawson’s Pond at the other end of the county. The deal expanded Mulberry to about 1,700 acres, including 2 miles of frontage along the Cooper River.
And the property was maintained by a talented staff of about 10 who oversee its buildings and grounds.
“It’s hard to describe with appropriate superlatives to really indicate the major care that they took,” Robinson says. “The Gilberts treated it as just a jewel.”
Last year, the foundation gave its highest award to the couple for their care of Mulberry and their other contributions to the foundation, where Gail Gilbert served as a trustee.
Robinson says of all the hundreds of easement properties that the foundation’s April Wood inspects each year, Mulberry is her favorite.
“You go there,” she says, “and you don’t want to leave.”
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.