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The Colonel Robert Brewton House

71 Church Street c.1720

Dating from circa 1720, this outstanding residence is distinguished as Charleston's oldest existing "single house," built for Col. Robert Brewton, a wealthy wharf owner, militia officer, and member of the Commons House of Assembly. This classic home remains much as it was over 250 years ago, beautifully restored as closely as possible to its 18th century form. Original heart pine floors and cypress wainscoting are preserved intact. The exterior quoins are believed to be the first purely decorative stucco quoins done in North America. This house is privately owned and not available for public tours. However, because it came up for sale just as the Charleston Multimedia Project was going online, we had the unusual opportunity to gather some photographs and descriptive text about the interior, mostly written by the current owner. We wish to express our appreciation to Gayle Canaday representing Sotheby's International Realty and Coldwell-Banker O'Shaughnessy Real Estate for providing us with photographs, and the owner, Dr. Dwane Thomas, for the following description. Persons wishing to inquire about the property may contact Gayle Canaday at 803 577 0001. The residence is offered at $1,600,000. Inspection by appointment only. --Don Beagle.

The Col. Robert Brewton House was built on Towne Lott 57 granted December 1680, most probably between the years 1701 and 1715. The title transfer at that time suggests the house was built by a John Cock. It was acquired by Miles Brewton, the elder, and occupied by his son, Robert Brewton, after whom the house is named. The house must be one of the very oldest in the city and certainly in the United States. The house was built according to English architectural standards and tastes of the late 17th century. This house was built before Bach went to Leipzig, Handel went to London and before George Washington was born.

The house stands sideways on the lot, is on high ground with an earthen basement, consists of three stories and full attic and is of solid masonry construction. While many buildings were built of brick and later covered by stucco, this house showed a stucco exterior from its inception. The quoins of stucco are, as near as can be determined, the first purely decorative stucco quoins done in North America. The cornice run on the exterior can be seen to be identical to Harvard Hall in Cambridge, built c.1715. Beneath the cornice is an ogee molding. The present roof is copper which replaced a tile roof used to cover the original cedar shingle roof.

The entrance into the main house is through an original doorway with woodwork from the American Federal period. The entrance is located halfway down the building, in keeping with the positioning of the house on the property. This style of architecture came to be known as "the Charleston Single-House," one room wide on the street with the entrance down the drive. The Robert Brewton House is the prototype of this style of architecture and for over thirty years has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the U. S. Department of the Interior.

The doorway is from the American federal period with a small fan light and utilizes the original door, with only the surround changed in the late 18th century when the two main front rooms of the house were renovated into the style of the period. The exterior copper lanterns are identical to those supplied by the city for installation as gas street lamps. These were found under the house and support brackets fashioned after that of the street balcony. The candle molding is repeated in the upstairs drawing room.

On entering, one should notice the lock which is original, dating from the 18th century. Few locks of this size and period remain, especially in their original application. The entrance into the stairhall reveals a living room to the right, now used as a library and music room, and the dining room to the left. The hall wallpaper is hand painted and is of Oriental theme, Charleston being on the 18th century China trade routes.The staircase leading upstairs has a handrail joined by pegs, typical of the period. Wainscot is in the original simple style, but covers a single layer of brick which separates the rooms from the hall, and thereby becomes the first example of a firewall in the colonies.

The painted overdoor treatment is that of an 18th century Charleston secretary.
The library is generously supplied with light and is delightful as a living space. The floors, as are all floors on the property, are original unstained heart pine. Their deep color comes from age. The wainscot is original cypress, but has been elaborated upon, as tastes changed and the room went from pre-Georgian through early and late Georgian to an Adam's influence. The mantel is in the Adam's style, a kind of sunburst, elaborate with fluted columns. The hearth is slate, beautifully marbelized. The fireback was found, covered by a later enclosure, in the bedroom fireplace, and is a 17th century French piece, an antique when the house was built. The cornices were installed with the mantel and represent American gouge work.

The dining room is from the late Georgian period. The room was destroyed by removal of moldings and chair railings, but has been renovated (renovation was confined to this one room). The crown molding was discovered to be the key to the history of the interior design of the house. The original was replaced by early and then late Georgian moldings. The balanced doors were added in about 1740. Notable are the width and length of cypress boards used in the wainscot, which would not be available in today's market.The dining room fireplace was not originally built with a mantel. As built, the fireplace had only molding surrounds and mantels were added and changed as remodeling occurred.

Going upstairs one enters the drawing room, the most elaborate room of the house. The room is well lighted and enjoys access to the balcony through French doors. The woodwork of the wainscoting is similar to that of the library. The Adams' style mantel is an enormous handcarved piece featuring stylized blossoms of American dogwood. A candle dentil mold is repeated in the crown moldings and over the main entrance door downstairs. As in all period Charleston houses, the main room is on the second floor, to be above the street noise and stink. Window treatments includes tassels from Florence, Italy, fringe from South Africa, silk from Scalamandre, wood from Southern Lumber of Charleston, and gilding from Friedman Bros. of Miami.

Entering the hallway again, one sees an overdoor painting from the Chippendale "Gentleman Cabinetmaker's Handbook."
The master bedroom exists as it was in the late 18th century. The cornice served as a model for the downstairs dining room. The sandstone surround to the fireplace and hearth tiles are original to c.1701-15. French Doors lead to the deck and shutters allow ventilation in spring and fall

Going upstairs, the third floor is, as the Charleston custom dictated, less tall. The third floor has two rooms which serve as bedrooms only. Each has a fireplace and the cypress mantels are from the 1740 renovation. Notable are the beautiful floors: in a size of flooring not available today. The windows are original, with flaws typical of imperfections of the early 18th century. Views from this floor include First Baptist, First Scots, and St. Michael's churches.

The attic is remarkable in that the rafters are numbered in Roman numerals and the numbers are repeated, indicating that the carpentry was done elsewhere and the parts assembled on site according to the numerals on the pieces in the wagon. The house was, therefore, assembled and built from a plan.The construction site foreman simply fit together, with pegs, the appropriate members provided from the carpentry site. Timbers are of heart pine and the pegs are of dogwood. The rafters are attached to the baseplate with a single wrought iron spike. A second and smaller rafter is added for coverage of the baseplate and wall, and the bell roof is thereby created.

Behind the main house, one finds the back yard, that space in front of the "out buildings."
The "carriage house" is actually three structures with the center section and entrance door having been built at the time of the main house The carriage house still has the tile roof installed in the late 1700's when fireproof roofing was mandated by city ordinance. Behind the carriage house, one finds the garden house. This was the original privy and, when renovation was done, the privy was excavated to find nothing of interest. Large brick arches supported the structure and remain under the concrete flooring. --Dr. Dwane Thomas