Historic Belfair and Rose Hill: Intimate and Revealing

watercolor by Alexandra Sharma

The Grand Days are Gone (Belfair), watercolor by Alexandra Sharma

This March, a bit of Bluffton’s fascinating history will be on display when Alexandra Sharma’s watercolor exhibit, “Historic Belfair and Rose Hill: Intimate and Revealing” opens at the Art League of Hilton Head Gallery.

An award-winning painter, sculptor and instructor who seeks to paint scenes and objects discovered in hidden or forgotten places, Sharma was given sole access to Iva Welton’s private photographic archive of Rose Hill Plantation House and Belfair Mansion. 

“The paintings are watercolors that allow me to be spontaneous as I incorporate abstract or ambiguous shapes, and intentionally use my brushstrokes to render the realistic image more abstract,” Sharma explains. “By working in this manner, I hope to create a mood and an implied narrative that resonate with the viewer.”

Responsible for getting the Gothic Revival Rose Hill Plantation House listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, Welton is an avid local historian and former director of the Rose Hill Plantation Development Co. which purchased the property for development in 1980.

Watercolor by Alexandra Sharma

Construction on the Rose Hill Mansion began more than 100 years earlier, when Dr. John and Caroline Kirk began building a home in what was once the Devil’s Elbow Barony. Forced to relocate during the Civil War, the Kirks were never financially able to complete the home’s interior. In 1946, the 7,000-square-foot house set on 1,400 acres was purchased by John and Betsy Gould Sturgeon who, along with prominent architect Willis Irvin, put sophisticated finishing touches on the mansion which was then featured in a 1955 issue of Vogue. Mrs. Sturgeon passed away in 1966 and Mr. Sturgeon remained at Rose Hill until his death in 1978.

As Rose Hill Plantation was being developed into a gated community, Welton oversaw a 10-month rehabilitation of the mansion’s interior completed in 1986. The following year, an electrical fire caused considerable damage, including melting the cooper roof. Rose Hill Plantation House was purchased in 1996 and restored as a private home.

The Rose Hill Development Corporation also purchased an option on the adjacent 1800-acre Belfair tract in 1982. Although Welton had heard stories of an old house on the property, she didn’t have the time to locate it. At the invitation of owner Elizabeth Mingledorff, she finally saw Swain Mansion.

Watercolor by Alexandra Sharma

Watercolor by Alexandra Sharma

“Her driver took us down a long, winding oyster shell road, through the magnificent avenue of oaks and through the forested area. As we approached the house, which was the rear of the home, I was not prepared for what I saw,” recalls Welton. “The front of the great house looked directly on the Colleton River and I was aghast and, quite honestly, did not know what to say to her. There were curved double front steps off the porch and four huge Corinthian columns supporting the porch, but the entire house was crumbling. And there were magnificent pink camellias going up the front steps. That’s why Alexandra chose [to paint] this picture.”

Built in 1929 by artist W. Moseley Swain—grandson of a founder and proprietor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger—the four-story Belfair House was composed primarily of tabby mixed with some concrete. According to Welton, “Mr. Swain did not know—although local people warned him—that you cannot use water that has salt in it. From the day that the house was built, the house began to crumble.”

In 1948, Swain’s son, Billy, fell down the stairs during a house party. Although Victor Strojny of Callawassie was indicted for Swain’s murder, he was never tried and the case remains unsolved. The Mingledorff family purchased Swain Mansion in 1951 and the property was transformed into a cattle ranch (the house used to store grain) and, later, a turkey farm. In 1982, the Welton family purchased the Belfair property—excluding the house—from the Mingledorffs and it was later sold it to the community’s developer. The mansion house overlooking the Colleton River sold in 1985, was torn down and rebuilt using the four original Corinthian columns. Welton is unsure of its exact location, since the property is now private, gated and falls between Rose Hill and Belfair Plantations.

watercolor by Alexandra Sharma

Watercolor by Alexandra Sharma

“The photos became a reference for my paintings and provided me an intimate and alluring glimpse of private, forgotten and lost places,” says Sharma. “Belfair, a mysterious great house with a fatal staircase and structural issues—now destroyed, and Rose Hill, a survivor through periods of abandonment, a fire and final restoration.”

Sharma’s choice of watercolors allows her to “conjure the magnificence, loneliness and mystery of the place while staying true to architectural detail to document a time past and scenes that no longer exist.”

Alexandra Sharma’s “Historic Belfair and Rose Hill: Intimate and Revealing” exhibition opens at the Art League of Hilton Head Gallery located within the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on March 16, 2017 with an Opening Reception from 5-7 p.m. On March 18, 2017 Alexandra Sharma leads a Gallery Walk and Iva Welton presents a power point History Presentation from 5-7 p.m. For details, call (843) 681-5060 or visit artleaguehhi.org.