Hanover House: Clemson’s historic French cottage turns 300
The 18th-century wooden cottage looks right at home next to the the lush lawns and colorful flower beds of the S.C. Botanical Gardens, well out of sight of traffic from nearby Perimeter Road. But the road that the Hanover House had to take to reach this destination was long and winding, dating back to the 1598 Edict of Nantes.
But more about that later. In honor of its 300th birthday this year, here are five reasons you should visit the Hanover House.
- You can visit a 300-year-old “museum home” that’s on the National Historic Register — without going to Charleston.
- It was once featured as a colonial house plan by Southern Living magazine.
- You can learn the origin of the phrase “sleep tight.”
- You can look for the French phrase “Peu a Peu” chiseled into the chimney.
- You’ll have an excuse to wander through the rest of the S.C. Botanical Garden.
The Hanover House is a living testament to the famed Clemson “determined spirit” – having defied all odds to still be standing.
The cypress wood home was constructed between 1714 and 1716 on 1,000 acres of Lowcountry land in what is now Berkeley County. Its original owner was Paul de St. Julien, whose ancestors were among the flood of French Protestants (or Huguenots) who left France to avoid persecution for their religious beliefs after King Louis XIV overturned the Edict of Nantes — which had granted them civil rights in the mostly Catholic country.
Many of St. Julien’s personal contributions to the design remain intact, including a phrase chiseled into the chimney bricks that acknowledges his French background and the long journey to America: “Peu a peu” — or “little by little” — from the French proverb, “Little by little the bird builds its nest.”
St. Julien named the house for the British King George I, former elector of Hanover, who had helped many Huguenots make their way to the English colonies in America. The house remains an important example of French Huguenot colonial design — which is why it’s sitting on the Clemson campus instead of at the bottom of Lake Moultrie.
When St. Julien died in 1741, the home was bequeathed to his daughter Mary, who married her cousin Henry Ravenel in 1750. The home remained in the family for nearly 150 years, until the last male descendent to take possession of the house was killed in the Civil War. His daughter, Mrs. John St. Clair White sold the property to a syndicate purchasing property in the area.
The home fell into disrepair in the early 20th century, and the land that was once a thriving rice plantation was among the thousands of acres slated to be flooded to form Lake Moultrie as part of a hydroelectric project.
But local citizens who thought the home worth saving appealed to James F. Byrnes, a South Carolina politician who at the time was serving as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for intervention. Byrnes approached the National Park Service and Department of the Interior for help, and while all agreed the home was valuable, no funds were allocated for its preservation. The government did provide support for an assessment to document the house, which noted that Hanover was “the only house in the proposed region of inundation the loss of which can be considered of national importance.”
After several Lowcountry groups failed to find a suitable new location, Robert M. Cooper, general manager of the Santee-Cooper Public Service Authority and Clemson Trustee (and whose name adorns the University’s library) suggested moving the house to Clemson, where faculty, students and graduates of the state’s only architecture program had the expertise to relocate, restore and care for it.
So, with the help of a Works Projects Administration grant, beginning in 1941, the house was carefully photographed, documented and dismantled — piece by piece — and trucked 250 miles to Clemson. The phrase St. Julien had inscribed in the bricks of that chimney — Peu a Peu — never rang more true. The project of rebuilding and restoring the home was put on hold for two years because of World War II.
“The historic preservation of Hanover House by architects and historians was in reality an early creative inquiry project involving, students, faculty and staff to photograph, blueprint and document the structure on its original site in Berkeley County and to relocate and reconstruct Hanover on campus in 1941,” said Will Hiott, director of historic properties.
But eventually the project was completed, and Hanover opened to visitors in a new location on a wooded edge on campus where Architecture Professor Rudolph E. Lee hoped to create a Colonial restoration area. Since no furnishings or family belongings remained in the home, Clemson faculty and students crafted many of the hardware pieces, reproductions and textiles now on display.
In the 1950s, local chapters of the Colonial Dames, spearheaded by the Spartanburg Committee of the National Society of the Colonial Dames, “adopted” the home and began providing authentic period pieces and works of art, including a portrait of King George I, a Huguenot Bible and Ravenel family portraits painted by artist and actress Alicia Rhett, best known for her supporting role in “Gone with the Wind.” The Colonial Dames continue to provide support for the home’s collections and operations today.
But as enrollment, academic programming and the physical campus expanded, Hanover once again found itself in need of a new location to make room for the Hendrix Student Center. Modern house-moving methods made the task a bit easier, as the home was lifted in one piece and moved just a few blocks to the Botanical Garden.
“We are excited to celebrate this milestone of three centuries of the colonial cottage. This year we observe not only the tricentennial of Hanover but also the 75th year as part of Clemson University having been built in 1941,” Hiott said. “As we reflect on the tricentennial of the Hanover we reflect on American History from French Protestant refugees, such as the St. Juliens and Ravenel’s the Huguenots, who came to the Colonies, fought in the American Revolution with Francis Marion and aided in founding South Carolina.”
Today, the Hanover House remains open to the public on weekends and serves as a resource for students and faculty studying early American history, architecture and historic preservation or tourism management. Rotating exhibits offer insights into the pre-Civil War era. For example, a recent exhibit featureed prints of drawings by naturalist Mark Catesby, who surveyed many parts of South Carolina in the early 18th century and whose drawings depict some species of plants and birds that are now extinct.
Efforts are also under way to document and tell the story of enslaved African-Americans who labored on the Berkeley County rice plantation. St. Julien’s 1741 will, which lists 45 enslaved people among the owner’s “possessions,” is currently on display at the home along with replicas of tools and farm implements the slaves might have used.
A new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system helps protect the collections and make visitors more comfortable year-round, thanks to private donations from alumni Sarah and George Todd, Jackie and Dale Reynolds, and Allen Martin. Also, Mark Trammell of Heating/Cooling Services of Anderson underwrote part of the new system, which maintains the architectural aesthetics of the 300-year-old house while providing conditioned spaces for the museum including additional humidification in winter months.
What’s next for the house? Hiott says short-term plans include a new landscape plan that will reflect on the discoveries of Catesby and other early naturalists such as Andre Michaux, and William Bartram, incorporating plant materials they documented. A French parterre or knot-garden will be a destination oasis around the Hanover House. Long-range plans seek to provide staffing for weekly visitation ranging from school groups to heritage tourism.
Join the anniversary observance by visiting the Hanover House and the rest of the S.C. Botanical Garden. The home is currently open on weekends or by special appointment for groups.
To learn more about the Hanover House, check out this video.