PHOTO: Historic Hilton Head mausoleum gets help from SCAD students

info@islandpacket.comMay 17, 2013 

On an island where high-priced real estate abounds, one priceless structure is also the oldest: the 167-year-old Baynard Mausoleum, near the intersection of William Hilton Parkway and Mathews Drive.

"To place a value on it would be impossible," said Jeff Eley, chairman of the historical preservation department at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Eley was at the Zion Chapel of Ease and Cemetery Friday to help a class of historical preservation students from the college analyze the mausoleum's structure.

Its facade proclaims in etched script: "Integrity and Uprightness." But the building's red sandstone walls are cracking and its limestone roof is caving in, according to Dr. Thomas Taylor, a SCAD professor leading the preservation study.

A few years ago, support columns and brackets were installed to prevent further deterioration.

The Heritage Library Foundation is working with SCAD on a structural analysis of the mausoleum, which will continue today. The data gathered could enhance the foundation's application to have the mausoleum listed on the National Register of Historic Places, said Barry Riordan, the foundation's grant writer.

And that could help leverage thousands of dollars in grants and donations needed to preserve it, he said.

The remains of William Edings Baynard, who built the mausoleum three years before his death at 49 years old, and his relatives are gone now. Also gone are their form-fitting copper caskets, which slightly resembled Egyptian sarcophaguses.

Baynard, a successful planter, had bought the 600-acre Spanish Wells Plantation in 1790, according the Rev. Robert Peeples, a local historian.

Elsewhere in the cemetery, which contains 47 marked graves for Hilton Head's Revolutionary War heroes and wealthy indigo and cotton plantation families, is the former site of a wooden chapel built in about 1786. Historians are unsure about exactly where the 40-by-30-foot building stood, according to Bill Altstaetter, former president of the Heritage Library Foundation.

Services were held there regularly until the island was invaded by Union troops in 1861. When a church rector returned in 1867, he reported that Zion Chapel had disappeared, according to Peeples.

Now, the mausoleum, whose white marble doors were also removed by looters around the time of the Civil War, is the largest intact structure in the 2.8-acre cemetery.

Chelsea Guthrie was one of the first to volunteer to measure the interior walls, beams, corners and 21 coffin slots inside the rarely opened building.

"I don't mind spiders," said Guthrie, while another of the nine students walked out of the tomb to measure its exterior.

Guthrie, who said she "just likes old stuff," became interested in preservation while studying in Venice, Italy.

"Nowadays everyone is so focused on what's new and what's modern" that they overlook the past and its stories, she said.

"In a place like Savannah, you can walk through the city, and it comes to life," Eley said. "But Hilton Head -- not so much. There are isolated places you want to preserve, because those are the tangible elements that communicate stories more effectively.

"It's more than golf and tennis."

Lauren Jones, a master's degree candidate, said she hopes to use what she's learned through such hands-on experiences to breathe life into decaying communities.

Her goal after graduating is to work with town planners to revitalize downtown districts.

Instead of tearing buildings down, Jones says she wants to help restore their integrity -- and uprightness.

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