An iconic Beaufort cottage that has been a priority for rescue by Beaufort preservationists for almost 30 years is undergoing restoration by a new owner.
The ca. 1852 McGrath-Scheper House at 807 North St. captures much of Beaufort's history in its 161-year lifespan. Now in the 21st century, the little cottage will enter a new phase with a new story that is enriched by the lives of all the generations of Beaufortonians who have lived there.
Purchased recently by Jim and Susan McCuistion of Houston, the raised one-story house has long generated enthusiasm because of its desirable and beautifully simple, classic design and because it is thought to be one of the oldest unrestored historic houses in Beaufort. Contractor Beekman Webb and architect Ansley Manual are implementing the restoration.
Close examination reveals the quality of materials used by builder Patrick McGrath, who bought the property and adjoining lots in 1840 from Beaufort College trustees. The interior is heart pine with single-width walls. The wide wood floors retain their deep heart pine color. Original walls, Greek Revival mantels, doors and floor plan are in place, with no signs of remodeling.
Over the years, the house generated a lot of emotion on the part of HBF and with the family who owned it, said Terry Murray who as HBF chairman during the 1980s led the group's efforts to purchase the house. In 2003, the foundation was successful in acquiring a lease on the property. By that time, weather and neglect had taken a serious toll and HBF spent more than $100,000 stabilizing it by removing collapsed additions, putting on a new roof and repairing the piers and porch. The stabilization was funded by the Foundation's Revolving Fund, a federal grant through the S.C. Department of Archives & History and a grant by Beaufort County and private donors.
Like so much of Beaufort, the house bears the stamp of both a white and African-American history. McGrath, a Scottish immigrant who first settled in Charleston and came to Beaufort during the building boom of the 1840s, was listed as the carpenter of Beaufort on the original deed. McGrath was in the right place at the right time for a building boom that was just beginning after a period of poor cotton prices.
McGrath's family lived in the house along with three slaves until Union troops arrived in 1861. Like most white families, they fled, and along with many other Beaufort properties, the property was confiscated by the federal government in 1863 for nonpayment of $3.20 in back taxes. McGrath died during the war and Jane McGrath redeemed their home when the confiscations were ruled illegal in the 1870s. Jane McGrath and her daughter sold the cottage in 1875 to George Holmes, a northern real estate speculator and later a Beaufort mayor.
With the Civil War, the McGraths' lives were radically changed. It was the beginning of a new Beaufort that no longer was dominated by a planter society and white tradesmen. Downtown became a mecca for freedmen, and while they were never able to amass great wealth, they were able to purchase property and it became the domain of the new population.
In 1885, the little cottage on North Street began its history as a part of an enterprising black community. George Holmes held on to it for 10 years before selling it for $1,200 to Chloe Lopez, a 48-year-old black woman, and her husband, a painter. The Lopezes and their heirs lived in the house for 26 years before selling it to George Moultrie, a river pilot, for $500 in 1911.
Moultrie's wife, called "Big Moot" by some, is said to have been a midwife. Some in the community have called the cottage "the Birthing House." The immediate neighborhood was noted for providing medical services to African-Americans. Nearby stood the DeVaux Sanitarium that was founded by Katherine DeVaux. Down the street was the office of Dr. Kennedy and Dr. Simpson, both African-American doctors.
In 1947, the house was sold for $1,000 to Helen Scheper who lived in a house just around the corner at 502 Scott St. that was restored by HBF in 1998. She gave the cottage to her daughter-in-law and her heirs in 1977 and it has been uninhabited since that time.
While the McCuistions deserve the preservation community's gratitude for their desire to restore the cottage, the preservation community is to be lauded for its persistent focus on saving this last structure of its design in Beaufort and the family stories that were generated there. HBF board chairman Conway Ivy, who steered the negotiations to put the house in the hands of a preservation-minded owner said, "HBF welcomes the efforts of the McCuistions to return this house to a home and to add to its story."
Maxine Lutz is the executive director of Historic Beaufort Foundation.