One of the few Frank Lloyd Wright sites in the southeast is a working plantation in Yemassee, South Carolina called Auldbrass. Privately owned since 1986 and in ongoing restoration by famed Hollywood producer Joel Silver (think Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Matrix), this is one of the more difficult Wright properties to visit. Unless you’re a Hollywood A-lister invited for a party, the property is only open through the Land Trust to a few lucky Wright aficionados one weekend every other year – a hard ticket to come by.
Friends in North Carolina visited several years ago and told us it was fabulous, and if we ever got the chance we should definitely go. We were able to spend a day there this past November, and highly recommend it. Yemassee is a quiet rural area of South Carolina, about an hour inland from the coastline between Charleston and Savannah. The ACE basin waterways and marshes extend far inland, and you can reach the ocean from the rivhe property. Staying on Fripp Island north of Hilton Head, we had a little over an hour drive northwest through Beaufort to reach Auldbrass.
The first thing you notice is that everything is at a 17-degree angle. Almost everything. Fences, Walls, gates, roofs, windows. Then you notice that everything is a dark red color. Almost everything. Walkways, driveways, fences, walls. Wright mimicked the angle of the stately live oaks on the property, making everything 17 degrees. He mimicked the Spanish moss in the trim and gutters, too. And the color of the red clay earth, making everything red. The owners bought an old warehouse and had the bricks crushed and brought in by rail cars to form the plantation roads. You notice the beauty and expansiveness of the property, and numerous low ground-hugging buildings spread throughout. Besides the main house, there are barns, stables, offices, bunkhouses, guesthouses, game rooms, and more. Many long and low buildings, blending in with the landscape and disappearing among the beautiful live oaks.
You’ll also certainly notice the wildlife; lots of it. Cows, ostriches, an aviary, zebras, and even a tiger; the farm wild game manager later told me it was really an ocelot stalking me alongside the fence. I kid you not. Then you’ll notice the large sculpture garden, which includes a collection of classic soviet cold war pieces in an Art Deco 1930’s Public Works style. The sickles and raised fist certainly grab your attention in the idyllic Carolina countryside. A farm worker told me he heard they were a bargain back in the 90’s when the Soviets needed hard currency, and anything might be sold.
The original owner of the plantation and his family built, then modified and restored many of the buildings Wright designed for them in the 1930’s. Some were badly “updated”, while others had never been constructed. Known locally as the crazy house because nothing was straight, it was bought by a lumber company and then sold to a hunters group in the 1970’s, and in decay in the 80’s.
A group of Georgia Tech architecture students drove over to search for and see if the house still existed one weekend in the 80’s, finally finding the right property with local help. The Atlanta leader of those Tech architecture students from the 1980’s is back at the house this November, a Wright disciple, telling us what it was like “rediscovering” the property. They climbed fences and ignored “No Trespassing” signs to find this empty hunter’s camp house, filled with sleeping bags and beer. And original Wright -designed custom furniture. They feared for their safety when they were spotted and chased by 4-wheelers wielding guns. But it turned out to be the hunters, who were quite nice about letting the kids wander through their “Crazy House”. Eventually the Land Trust brokered a deal to buy and then resell the house and about 300 acres to Mr. Silver, who had restored another Frank Lloyd Wright house in California. “Each time the owner has a blockbuster movie at the box office he starts work on restoring another part of the plantation”, we were told. And he has hired Eric, Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, to reinterpret some of the unbuilt structures so they can work on completing his fathers dream. Estimates of what’s been spent on the property so far are quite significant.
The serene natural setting and beauty awe you. There’s a hushed reverence at Auldbrass other guests felt, too. What’s even more poignant about our trip is another visitor there at the same time we’re walking these sacred grounds. Several top architects have made the pilgrimage to see Wright’s work, including 93-year-old John Portman, in a wheelchair. One trailblazing maverick viewing another’s bold work from a previous era. The staff at Auldbrass was wowed by Mr. Portman – one international architectural star paying homage to another, their patron saint Wright. John looked happy, maybe even blissful, to be there. I like to imagine this visit was a bucket list item – he passed away the following month.