Renovated Seven Oaks seen as another visitor draw to old town Bluffton

June 9, 2008 

Six years ago, a Savannah College of Art and Design student compiled a rehabilitation proposal for Seven Oaks, a rundown ante-bellum house at the end of Calhoun Street in Bluffton.

The student wrote that the two-story house situated on a large overgrown corner lot "has great potential" and could become a banquet or wedding hall with bed-and-breakfast accommodations.

Developer Thomas Viljac must have seen that potential, too, when he bought the property about a year ago.

His nearly complete renovation of the site has restored Seven Oaks -- built in 1850 -- to its former glory when it served as a boarding house for weary travelers on the May River looking for a meal and a night's rest.

As one of the few structures not burned by Union troops in 1863 in a fire that ravaged two-thirds of Bluffton, the structure -- named for the seven colossal oak trees on the now lush and manicured grounds -- may soon take on even more historical significance.

In addition to following the Savannah student's recommendation that the house be used as a banquet hall, Viljac plans to turn the ground floor into a Bluffton museum.

Bluffton history buffs couldn't be happier.

One of them is Larry Hughes, the former president of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society, which runs the town's Heyward House Historic Center on Boundary Street.

Hughes said Seven Oaks will add "critical mass" to Calhoun Street and help in "branding the town of Bluffton."

Current Historical Preservation Society executive director Maureen Richards agreed.

"The more the town has to offer, the better chance more people will come," she wrote in an e-mail. "Then everybody wins: the museums, shops, galleries and restaurants."

Wendy Powers, assistant town manager for planning, said Heyward House and Seven Oaks may "complement one another."

She echoed the feeling that adding more attractions to old town is crucial to attracting tourists.

"Heyward House is not a full-day event," she said.

ONE STEP CLOSER

Town officials have pushed the effort to make Bluffton a bona fide tourist destination, pouring state and local accommodations tax funds into projects and groups that could draw visitors from Hilton Head Island, among other places.

But enticing island vacationers to the mainland requires what Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee members have called a "product."

That's where private developers should come in, Viljac said.

Having already restored the Carson Cottage, another Calhoun Street landmark, which now serves as Viljac's office, the developer said he envisions major improvements to Bluffton's historic district over the next few years. He said developers must be willing to supply both time and capital -- and have a vision.

"Old town needs investors," Viljac said, as he leaned against the kitchen cabinets his crew built from the old planks they found under the house.

Viljac also thinks Bluffton could become a tourist destination, but first it needs to establish more attractions.

"There needs to be something in old town for people to go to," he said from a second-floor doorway where a figure eight above the lintel still marks a room that once housed boarders.

Viljac is still waiting for official nonprofit status to get the museum running, but has already started collecting photographs and artifacts from Civil War auctions in Charleston and Atlanta. He said Seven Oaks, which still smells of fresh paint inside, could be available for use within six months.

Viljac has not said whether he plans to apply for accommodations tax funds to support the museum, as Heyward House directors do. In fiscal year 2008, Heyward House took in more than $140,000 in accommodations tax funds from Bluffton.

Town manager Bill Workman said it's unlikely the town would redirect money from Heyward House to Seven Oaks, but that as a nonprofit organization, Seven Oaks would be eligible to receive them.

Within the past year, Viljac has been in talks with the Historical Preservation Society to move its operations from the Heyward House to the significantly larger Seven Oaks.

Richards said Viljac asked too much in monthly rent and that her group had no interest in moving because it is still paying off the mortgage on the Heyward House.

Both Viljac and Richards said they anticipate a good relationship between Heyward House and Seven Oaks, including possible partnerships in hosting community events.

Such partnerships and new community events could lead to more of what Hughes called "critical mass" on Calhoun Street and maybe move Bluffton one step closer to attracting the masses.

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