Diamond in the Desert and The Lowndes House
By Missy Schenck
The Lowndes family of Charleston was one of the initial Lowcountry families to establish Flat Rock as their summer residence. Their heritage includes significant historic Flat Rock properties including Diamond in the Desert, once the rectory for St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church; The Rock, now called The Lowndes House and the home of the Flat Rock Playhouse; and Dolce Far Niente, written about in the September 2020 Mercury.
Charles Baring and his wife, Susan, built the first parsonage for their chapel, St. John in the Wilderness, around 1834 as a home for Reverend Thomas W. S. Mott, who came from Oxford, England, to be rector of the parish. Since operations of the church were seasonal, Mott, the first rector of the church, also conducted a small private boys’ school for Mrs. Baring’s orphaned nephews on the property. Built near the main road, Greenville Highway, the house had four rooms on the first floor, the front rooms having high Venetian-style windows and hand-carved paneling in the wainscoting. This, with a half story above with dormer windows and a basement, made up the original dwelling.
Diamond in the Desert around 1934. Image courtesy of Lowndes and Burke families.
Upon the death of Susan Baring, in 1845, her estate reverted back to her first husband’s family, leaving Charles Baring’s financial resources drastically reduced. In 1846, he sold the parsonage and 22 acres to Richard Henry Lowndes of Charleston, son of Thomas Lowndes, a charter member of the church. Richard, a rice planter from South Carolina, enlarged the rectory and made it his summer home, Diamond in the Desert, but always referred to it as “The Cottage.” It stood in a wooded area that resembled in no way a desert but rather a seeming wilderness. Easily seen from the highway, the frame house was notable for its wide, shaded piazza with decorative arched latticework. They lived there throughout the War Between the States, and it is said the family hid their horses in the vast, unfinished basement to save them from the renegades in the area.
When Lowndes and his wife, Susan Middleton Parker Lowndes, died, the house passed on to their daughter, Caroline, and her husband, D. Lynch Pringle, and then to their son, J. R. Poinsett Pringle, who sold it in 1924.
Diamond in the Desert on fire. Image by Wick Andrews.
In 1960, the house was tragically hit by lightning and burned. “Thunderstorms remind me of a particular day a number of years ago,” recalls local historian Louise Bailey in her 2007 Times-News article. “I had driven into town and was eager to get home before the thunderstorm really set in. At the very moment I was passing Diamond in the Desert, lightning flashed. The house burst into flames that instantly spread throughout it. Flat Rock had no fire department then, but any attempt to save the structure would have been futile.” Wick Andrews, a relative of Richard Lowndes, also witnessed the fire that became a catalyst for the first fire station in the village.
In 1884, Richard H. Lowndes divided off a six-acre portion of his Diamond in the Desert property at the corner of Little River Road for his son, Richard I’On Lowndes, and his wife, Alice Izard Middleton Lowndes, to build their house, “The Rock,” named for its location on the outcropping from which the community takes its name. Richard H. Lowndes leased the property to them for 99 years and one day. In 1902, he conveyed the land and the 1880s house to his grandchildren, and they sold it in 1921 to Henderson County for the use of the rock quarry for road work.
Sadie Smathers Patton relates in her book, The Little Charleston of the Mountains, “In earlier days this outcrop of granite extended across the present highway and joined that which now appears on the opposite area. It has been said this was the old festival and ceremonial ground of the Cherokee. Before any rock was blasted out or removed, there were easily identifiable pits of depressions, 11 in number, which those who studied them classified as fire pits.”
After several owners, Ruth and Alex Conrad of Aiken, S.C., bought The Rock in 1948, changed the name to Rockworth and operated it as a guest house called the Holiday Inn until 1951 when they leased the entire property to a small local actors’ group, The Vagabond Players.
During their first few years, The Vagabond Players worked in a variety of places. In 1940, the group came to Flat Rock and presented their first summer season in Rhett’s Mill, a former grist mill at the Highland Lake dam. The Playhouse was put on hold during WWII and in 1946 when Robroy Farquhar, playhouse director, returned from war, he reorganized his Vagabonds. The Old Mill had been sold, but just down the road from Flat Rock beside Lake Summit, Mrs. John A. Law had converted an old school into a theatre for the Carolina Players of Chapel Hill who no longer needed the facility. The Lake Summit Playhouse ran for four years and in 1951 the Vagabond Players leased the Rockworth property from the Conrads and began staging performances there in a big top tent.
After making numerous offers to buy Rockworth, The Vagabonds purchased it for $25,000 in 1956 and renamed it The Lowndes House. Initially, the house was used as quarters for summer stock actors and today serves as office space, meeting rooms and the theater box office. According to the National Register of Historic Places, “the two story side-gabled house is five bays wide on the first floor and three bays wide on the second story with a one and a half story rear ell, one story polygonal side bays, and an attached one story hip-roof porch with a central second-story bay. Resting on a stone foundation, the house is covered with weatherboards and each side elevation has a projecting half-hexagon bay window with French doors and a Mansard roof. Two exterior brick chimneys with corbelled caps rise against the rear elevation of the main block.”
The Lowndes House at Flat Rock Playhouse complex. Image by the author.
In addition to being a significant part of the Flat Rock Playhouse complex, The Lowndes House is acknowledgement of one of Flat Rock’s important founding families. The grounds and gardens were designed and are maintained by North Carolina Master Gardeners and are worth the walk around the property. In 1961, the North Carolina General Assembly designated the Playhouse as the State Theater of North Carolina, the third of only three state theaters in the nation; and in 1993, in exchange for renovation assistance, Historic Flat Rock, Inc., received a Preservation Easement on the property.
Galen Reuther, Flat Rock, Images of America Series (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004)
Louise Howe Bailey, 50 Years: The Vagabond Players Celebrate 50 Years of Theatre Magic (Hendersonville, NC: Coo-Coo Enterprises, 1996)
Sadie Smathers Patton, The Little Charleston of the Mountains (Hickory, NC: Hickory Printing Group, Inc. 1961)
Louise Howe Bailey, Saint John in the Wilderness 1836 (Asheville, NC: Biltmore Press, 1995)
Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina, with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.