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Octagon House is dentist’s lovely legacy

Sullivan’s Island has been the ideal beachside getaway from the Holy City for nearly as long as there has been a Charleston from which to get away. While today’s beach mansion expansion is something with which we’re all familiar, the island has long been a magnet for those looking to enjoy the sea breezes. Newspaper advertisements from the 1700s invited those on the peninsula to sail over on the weekends for barbecues — occasionally feasts of sea turtle. Despite a complicated licensing scheme for building on the island, Charlestonians still came in droves. While the population waned in wartime, it always rebounded: One Sullivan’s Islander who arrived during a 1870s rebuilding boom left not one but two unique residences that remain part of the island’s colorful historical fabric.

Of all the obscure titles that might place a figure in the history books, Dr. John B. Patrick holds a fine one — “the venerable father of dentistry in South Carolina.” Note, too, that “father” was scarcely a figurative moniker: Not only was J.B. Patrick a dentist, but so were five of his sons and five of his grandsons.

Born in the summer of 1822, Patrick was a teenager working for the Baldwin Locomotive Works when one of the Holy City’s most prominent dentists, Dr. L.W. Houston, met him. Houston thought Patrick’s keen mind and fine hands might be better suited to oral medicine than building trains. Soon he was Houston’s apprentice, then partner, then sole proprietor of the office when the elder practitioner went to work on the mouths of European royalty.

Houston would have been a valuable mentor. He was particularly skilled in constructing gold swaged dentures; during the early 19th century dentists barely discussed the technical aspects of such fixtures, except though the master-apprentice relationship. Notably, however, Patrick spent much of his life imparting his dental knowledge: This reversal of the traditional closed relationship Patrick studied under helped spread improved dental theory and practice far and wide and was key to his “father of dentistry” title.

He was an active member and one-time president of the Southern Dental Association, an officer of the Dental Association of the United States and a founder of the Charleston Dental Society. He presented papers frequently, ranging from the latest dental procedures to answering the question of where pus comes from.

Patrick built not one but two remarkable buildings on Sullivan’s Island. His summer home was 1820 Middle St., a grand three-story affair with piazzas wrapping around the front and sides. Made of cypress and heart pine throughout and held together with pegged mortise-and-tenon joints, the substantive home originally had an ocean view and would have been a center for summer entertaining for Patrick and his large family.

It’s worth noting that 1820 Middle maintained an outsized reputation for entertaining even after the Patrick family left; upon John Patrick’s death his son Charles sold the property to one William Bherman. Bherman converted the lower floor of the residence into a tavern and the upper two floors into very short-term hotel rooms. At a time when Fort Moultrie was still an active military installation, the “Moultrieville Brothel” was one of the most popular spots on the island — a role it held for nearly 20 years.

However, a such a lively tone was nothing new to the property; John Patrick and his five sons were, apparently, quite the crew. While there were six men in the home during the summers, the good doctor also had a wife and three daughters. The girls must have put their foot down, as John soon built a small building at 1820 I’on Ave. as a getaway for the fellows to play cards.

As Martha Freshley from William Means would be happy to show the prospective buyer, 1820 I’on is no longer just a Victorian folly but a unique and fully functioning home. Settled in the shadow of the Charleston Lighthouse, expansions over the years have left the home at a just-right size of four bedrooms, two baths and more than 2,400 sq. ft. of living space. Full of classic Sullivan’s style, the Octagon House retains its original heart pine flooring, broad porches and simple-but-striking vaulted ceilings — and of course the charming octagonal card room that makes the property unlike any other.

As Charleston settles in for a long, hot summer, the prospect of time at the beach is just as attractive to us as it was in days gone by; 1820 I’on is already ready for residency this season, with a new roof, new windows, upgraded appliances and even new irrigation for the yard. If you’ve been looking for the perfect place to invite folks over for cards — or just to soak up the ocean breeze — 1820 I’on is sure to make you smile.

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