The Founding of Historic Flat Rock, Inc.
By Missy Schenck
Ravenswood prior to demolition. Image courtesy Historic Flat Rock, Inc.
For more than a 100 years, Flat Rock, North Carolina, “The Little Charleston of the Mountains,” was sufficient unto itself. It had its own railroad station, a blacksmith shop, a post office and an Episcopal church that opened the first Sunday in June and closed in mid-September when most of the entire congregation returned to the Lowcountry. Today, Flat Rock’s boundaries are clearly drawn, but before they were marked, the late Frank L. FitzSimons referred to Flat Rock as “a state of mind.” Whoever wanted to claim residence did so.
The 1950s brought progress to the area with the arrival of industry and retired people from the North and Midwest seeking year-round homes in a mild climate. Residential developments spread across forest and fields that once offered space and privacy to Flat Rock’s country estates.
These estates, many of them built during the period of Flat Rock’s first growth prior to the War Between the States, were part of its golden age. Their history and the names associated with them contribute to the romance of Flat Rock and its story.
Up until this time, Mother Nature and the acts of war raging around and within the summer colony failed to destroy the architectural mosaic that is Flat Rock. The area runs the gamut from the classical style of the Old South through Gothic revival, late Victorian or Edwardian, and Tudor to the massive framed cottage style of the early 20th century. Its rich variation of designs makes Flat Rock a unique architectural whole found nowhere else in the entire South.
When the antique beauty of Flat Rock was threatened in the 1960s with the demolition of two historic properties and the burning of another, a nonprofit organization was formed with the purpose of helping to protect as much as possible of the community’s unique character and the preservation of the area’s historic sites and values. This organization was named Historic Flat Rock, Inc.
From the pages of Alex Schenck’s 1968 journal: “Historic Flat Rock, Inc., our local preservation society, is getting underway after our organizational meeting in July at which I presided as the first president of the association. Held on the side lawn of Kenmure, Gordon McCabe’s home, everybody brought their own picnic and we had a meeting that was the beginning of Historic Flat Rock. We have about 150 members and 22 trustees.”
Ravenswood, the first estate on Little River Road after leaving the highway, was built in 1859 by H. T. Farmer for the Reverend John Grimke Drayton. It was named Ravenswood for the raven in the Drayton family coat of arms. The land on which it was located was once part of the C. G. Memminger Rock Hill tract known today as Connemara, home of Carl Sandburg.
According to legend, the Rev. Drayton climbed a large tree on his property and directed Squire Farmer as to the building site for his home. The house that was built was indeed a Flat Rock treasure. The 1972 edition of Southern Antiques and Interiors describes it this way: “Ravenswood’s architectural values were of its whole effect — the Gothic lancet windows as sidelights to an arched entrance door, the clustered posts of the porch columns and the stone Gothic tracery lightly reflected in the partial foils of their wooden brackets, the mullions of the dormer windows that created two pointed segments and a diamond, the several scroll saw designs used under either dormers or gables and the chimney stacks with their clusters of six octagon flues of 17th-century design.”
The Rev. Drayton was beloved by the people of Flat Rock as the rector of St. John in the Wilderness and nearby Hendersonville, where he served the congregation of St. James. Ill health forced him to abandon his career as a minister, and he turned to the outdoors and his love of nature. The plantings he begun in 1830 at his family’s Magnolia Gardens in Charleston included hundreds of varieties of rare shrubs and trees, many of them imported from abroad. Among them were the red rhododendron from the Himalayas and a rare Chinese yew. The grounds of his Flat Rock home were laid out and bedded with many of these plantings.
Upon the Rev. Drayton’s death, Ravenswood went to his daughter, Mrs. William S. Hastie, and then to her daughter, Mrs. Ella Hastie Memminger, whose fond memories of Ravenswood included her courtship with her husband, W. W. Memminger, the grandson of C. G. Memminger, the owner of the neighboring property, Rock Hill/Connemara. Mrs. Memminger’s daughters, Mrs. Carl Gorham, Mrs. Julia Reilly and Mrs. Hoke Simpson, inherited the estate from her and put it up for bids for $13,000, but no one bought it. In the mid 1960s, it sold to Jim Barrett and W. B. W. Howe. The house had not been lived in for several years and was thought to be beyond practical repair, so it was torn down and its tract exploited. The property today is home to the post office, the Flat Rock Nature Preserve, an assortment of businesses, apartment buildings and a number of residential lots surrounding the enchanting lake of Ravenswood Subdivision.
Diamond in the Desert before and during the fire. Images courtesy Lowndes and Burke families and by Wick Andrews, respectively.
Diamond in the Desert
The first rectory of St. John in the Wilderness was built between 1832 and 1836 by Charles Baring as a home for the Reverend T. W. S. Mott, who also conducted a small school for boys there during the time he remained as rector of the church. In 1846, Baring 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.”
Easily seen from Greenville Highway, the frame house was notable for its wide, shaded piazza with decorative arched latticework. 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.
The Lowndes family 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.
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.”
The Drayton Place. Image courtesy Historic Flat Rock, Inc.
The Drayton Place
The Drayton Place was built by Charles H. Drayton in 1883 on property once part of the Heidelberg hotel tract of 400 acres. Embodying a large central gable and dormer windows with steep roof lines, the house revealed Gothic influences. That influence was also reflected in the 17th-century-style chimney stacks having three rectangular flues. Bold brackets were fitted to the posts of the porch that encompassed three sides of the house. Several dependencies including a small kitchen were attached to the rear of the dwelling. Lack of money kept it in its original form, and prosperity doomed it. Just when restoration was beginning to make regional inroads and place the proper value on such houses, it was demolished in July of 1972. Two individuals had considered restoration, but their plans were broken and it was replaced with open residential lots of the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Assembly, BonClarken, as an extension of their holdings.
The residents of Flat Rock had witnessed enough destruction and it was time to save their beloved historic community. The founding of Historic Flat Rock, Inc., provided an agency through which they could speak with a united voice.
The early activities of HFR centered on working with the utility companies and Highway Commission to preserve the roadways and forests of the area. Work was underway for recommending the Flat Rock district and a number of its structures for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. As a result, in 1973, Historic Flat Rock, Inc,. was instrumental in having 6.25 square miles of Flat Rock placed on the U.S. Department of Interior, National Register of Historic Places, one of the largest districts in the Southeast and the largest in N.C.
The first major project of HFR was the restoration of the Old Rectory of St. John in the Wilderness through a challenge grant from The Smith Richardson Foundation. When completed, portions of this beautiful old stone building constructed in 1853-54 would be used as headquarters for Historic Flat Rock, Inc., and a library-museum facility. The rectory today is a rental property for the church and headquarters for HFR are now located in the Old Flat Rock Post Office, another project of the organization.
The success of Flat Rock’s economic growth was also dependent on the collective efforts of Historic Flat Rock, Inc., and the stewardship of its members and the community. Maintaining a balance was important in protecting the village and its culture. In addition to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, a property administered by the National Park Service, and the Flat Rock Playhouse, the official state theater of N.C., tourism management and transportation became essential components of Flat Rock’s preservation. As an advocate for all, Historic Flat Rock, Inc., was in a position to help make the vital decisions to move the community forward in a graceful and accomplished manner.
The late 1980s witnessed the beginnings of Flat Rock’s commercial growth and business district with the purchase of Peace’s Grocery Store by Virginia Spigener and Starr Teel. Virginia had a vision for her unique shop, The Wrinkled Egg, as a gathering place in the community. Located within the restored grocery store, The Wrinkled Egg holds down the anchor building of Flat Rock’s Little Rainbow Row, a colorful row of shops and restaurants developed by Starr and Virginia and named for the infamous Rainbow Row in Charleston. Now considered the heart of Flat Rock’s retail area, Little Rainbow Row, rooted in historic charm, is a Flat Rock landmark and destination.
It takes a village to create a sense of place and one to make a difference. Fifty-three years after its founding, the mission of Historic Flat Rock, Inc., to protect and preserve, continues with an emphasis on education and volunteer opportunities, community engagement and planning, and preservation and financial assistance of historic properties. The antebellum structures of Flat Rock, the people and their stories and traditions are laden with tales of the past and a history that inspires and connects us to the future of a place that is a “state of the heart” as well.
Information for this article was obtained by referencing the published works of Blanche and Kenneth Marsh, Lenoir Ray, Sadie Smathers Patton, Frank FitzSimons, Louise Bailey and Mary Garrison. Addition resources include Southern Antiques and Interiors (Summer 1972), Carologue, A Publication of the South Carolina Historical Society (Summer 1995), Mountain Traditions (Spring 2007), and The National Register of Historic Places.
Missy Craver Izard Schenck 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. Missy currently serves as the President of Historic Flat Rock, Inc., a position once held by her father-in-law, Alex Schenck, the first president of the organization and a founding trustee.
For Historic Flat Rock, Inc. information and membership applications visit www.historicflatrockinc.com.