HISTORY OF THE THOMAS SMITH RHETT HOUSE, CA. 1820
AND THE RHETT HOUSE INN
Among Beaufort’s ethereal canopy of Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) dripping with Spanish Moss (Tillandsea usneoides - of the family Bromeliaceae, making it related to Bromeliads, Orchids, and believe it or not, the pineapple) and coated with Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides) is a nearly 200 year old “in-town plantation house”. The Thomas Rhett House is a short walk from the historic district shops and world class restaurants, and the Inn has been in operation since 1987, slowly expanding to surrounding properties several years later. In all, the AAA rated Four Diamond lodging has been in the top tier of AAA rated properties since 1994.
While many assume the name of the inn comes from the famous character Rhett Butler in the quintessential Southern film “Gone with the Wind”, the opposite is actually true. Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone With the Wind”, named the character after the prominent Rhetts of Beaufort and Charleston and the Butlers of Atlanta. Thomas Smith Rhett and his wife Caroline Barnwell (one of the South’s most prominent families – a county in S. C. is named for them) Rhett raised their children under the main house’s roof, and lived here until the Civil War. However, Thomas was originally a Smith. As his uncle with the last name of Rhett neared death, the uncle promised to bequeath his fortune to any male nephews who would carry on the last name. Thomas Smith was happy to oblige, and so became Thomas Rhett.
With his newfound inheritance, Thomas Rhett was able to build this fine 6,000 sq. ft. Greek Revival mansion, with a two story wrap around piazza just one block from the Beaufort River. The house is adorned with Adam-style decorative mantels and dentil mouldings that remain today. The mantels top the four original fireplaces remaining in the main house. The fireplaces in the Parlor and Dining Room are wood-burning and used regularly during the winter, inviting guests curl up with a good book next to the fire. The other two fireplaces are in upstairs guest rooms.
During the Civil War, the home served as a hospital recovery building. A Civil War era photograph in the Inn’s collection shows the Rhett House, after it was confiscated by Union soldiers, with Union medical officers and nurses standing on the piazza. The massive live oaks that shade the home today are eerily young in the photo, and the piazza and stairway look a little different: when built, the veranda didn’t wrap around the left side of the house as it does today, and the stairway was on the left side. These changes were made sometime in the late 19th century, possibly after the great hurricane of 1896. Stepping into the hallway, guests will see another photograph of the house taken in the early 20th century. Many guests try to gauge the date of this photo from the Model T sedan parked in front and from the size of the oaks (the year was 1921). The wrap-around piazza is present in that photo, and it is startling to think that the Rhett House was already 100 years old then.
Guests step on the piazza through gibb (sometimes spelled gib, and pronounced “jib”) doors. These doors, original to the home, are made from 8 foot windows that lift above and door bottoms – similar to a Dutch doorway – that are disguised as part of the wall, but open outward to the veranda. History has two stories for why these doors were built: some speculate it was because of a tax on doors, thereby motivating architects to disguise doors as windows to lower tax bills; others say the doors simply open up the house for better air flow, since most Gibb doors face the waterway.
Seven of the Inn’s rooms are found in the Cottage just across the street from the back of the property. This building, was built in 1846 as a store for freed slaves to buy and sell goods. It later became a school, then dormitory-style housing for seminary students. In 1996, Rhett House Inn owners Steve and Marianne Harrison bought the two-story building and renovated it into 7 additional guest rooms, all with fireplaces, whirlpool baths and separate showers.
Overlooking the garden is a large room that typically serves as the bride’s room, a honeymoon suite or a great spot for anniversaries. In the 1980’s, when the Harrisons were just starting the inn – after successful careers in the New York fashion industry – Room 10 was their bedroom while they operated the other five rooms. About 12 years ago the couple built a home in the back of the inn that blends perfectly with the rest of the neighborhood with its red tin roof.
Steve and Marianne Harrison have transformed a group of buildings with their own charm and history into the breathtaking Rhett House Inn. In the 25 years that the Harrisons have owned the Inn, is has been the location of many celebrity visits, celebrations, and countless weddings, including that of the Harrison’s daughter Elizabeth who was married there in 1997.