David Lauderdale

‘Wall Street gold’ built Lady’s Island mansion gutted by fire; tales of showgirls followed

Video shows massive fire at a waterfront plantation home on Lady’s Island

A $1.7 million plantation home in Lady's Island's Pleasant Point neighborhood was lost to a fire on Sunday.
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A $1.7 million plantation home in Lady's Island's Pleasant Point neighborhood was lost to a fire on Sunday.

Walls that could tell some of Beaufort’s most intriguing stories were suddenly ripped from us on Sunday’s stormy evening.

The Pleasant Point mansion was destroyed when fire literally swallowed its pecky cypress walls and all that was within.

Even before the white-columned mansion was occupied, it already was stirring the Lowcountry’s imagination.

“Arthur Barnwell Spends Wall Street Gold on Coastal Playhouse,” blared the headline over a 1931 newspaper story by Chlotilde R. Martin of Beaufort.

And in the style of the times, the headline went on:

“Builds Beaufort County Retreat. Invests More than $150,000 in Home and Swimming Pool. Returns to Native Land. Huge White House Contains Only Three Rooms and Kitchenette.”

Arthur Barnwell was a rich and handsome man who traced his local roots to Col. John “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell, a founder of Beaufort.

He made a fortune with his seat on the New York Stock Exchange, then bought the Cuthbert Point plantation on Lady’s Island. He retired at age 55 and built his playhouse.

Even today, whispers linger that he returned to this native land because he may have shot someone in Charleston and could not go back there.

But those walls that now seem so cruelly destroyed had much more to tell.

“For years the Beaufort community was titillated by tales of Arthur Barnwell’s many lady friends,” editors Robert B. Cuthbert and Stephen G. Hoffius write in their book, “Northern Money Southern Land: The Lowcountry Plantation Sketches of Chlotilde R. Martin.”

“His wife, from whom he was long separated, was said to be living in France. Young Beaufort lads of the 1930s and 1940s reported on the sunbathing pavilion built on the edge of the bluff, where Arthur and any number of young women were said to take the sun.

“Rumors spread of New York showgirls cavorting in Cuthbert Point’s saltwater pool. It is no surprise that he dropped the Cuthbert name in favor of ‘Pleasant Point.’“

Cloide and Pat Branning of Hilton Head Island, who at one time owned the mansion at the end of Pleasant Point Drive, heard stories of theatrical showman Billy Rose and record-setting swimmer and actress Esther Williams swimming in the large pool.

“Billy Rose would bring his showgirls down,” said Cloide Branning, a former chairman of Promise Keepers who said, to make it clear, this was not while he lived there from 1971 to 1979.

“The parties would last for weeks,” said Pat Branning, now known for her seven books in the Shrimp, Collards & Grits series. “They were lavishly entertained.”

The “coastal colonial” home, designed by architect C.R. Macdonald of the J.E. Sirrine company in Greenville, literally did have three rooms and a kitchenette.

Most of the ground floor was one large living room, or ballroom, with views of the Beaufort River and Pigeon Point beyond.

“From the front, the huge white building ... looks like a summer hotel with its wide porches facing the south,” Chlotilde Martin reported. It had a double balcony, the top one accessible by its two large, upstairs bedrooms.

But Martin wrote that the “pride and treasure of Mr. Barnwell’s heart” was the saltwater swimming pool that measured 20 by 60 feet and was 8 1/2 feet deep.

Pat Branning said they restored the pool and the building that covered it.

“It had pink chandeliers,” she said.

And, the Brannings discovered, it had ghosts.

“I’m not a believer in ghosts,” Cloide Branning said. “But somebody would walk up the stairs to the bedroom. You could hear them on each step. I would open the door with a .357 and there was nobody there. They’d also walk along the balcony. Finally they left. I guess they figured I was a good guy. We didn’t hear them anymore.”

Hoffius and Cuthbert wrote that Arthur Barnwell — who was “an oustanding athlete” who wanted to play professional baseball, but his father wouldn’t let him — died in 1955.

The land subsequently had several other owners. It at one time was used as a cattle ranch, Cloide Branning said.

Branning and partners bought the 615-acre tract to develop it. They would receive a landmark settlement from the federal government after Branning sued for noise damage done by military planes flying over the property at less than 500 feet above the ground.

Today, the storied property includes the Pleasant Point residential development and golf club.

The mansion was currently owned by Dr. Keith and Stephanie Guest, who had done a lot of work to a property they said was empty for a decade prior to their purchase. They added a wing, and his medical practice was based there.

“It was an amazing property that you could tell had been well-built and well-loved. We had been renovating that house constantly for the last eight years,” Stephanie Guest said Monday.

Pat Branning, who brought her first child home to that house, also was trying to come to terms with the fire on Monday.

“It was shocking and so fast,” she said. “You think about how many storms it’s been through, and then this.”

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale