Columbia’s oldest bed and breakfast inn has been put on the market.

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Columbia’s oldest bed and breakfast inn has been put on the market.

Post  jerry9552 on Tue Feb 01, 2011 12:37 pm

Columbia’s oldest bed and breakfast inn, a home where Mary Boykin Chesnut probably jotted entries in her well-regarded Civil War diary, has been put on the market.

Gale Garrett, owner of The Chesnut Cottage, is looking to retire from the business he started 20 years ago at 1718 Hampton St. downtown. He’s looking forward to building his dream home on 19 acres he owns in Lexington County.

A collector of first-edition books and antique tools, Garrett, 60, turned an interest in history into a successful business that tends to cater to people curious about the home’s place in American history.

When he and his late wife, Diane, bought the house in 1986, the name Mary Chesnut didn’t mean anything to him.

But Garrett made sure to learn as much as he could about the writer and Confederate socialite — from the various homes where she lived, including one in Camden renovated by William F. Buckley, to a series of ghostly events at the cottage — so he could satisfy the curiosity of his guests.

“I will share as much history with them as they are interested in,” Garrett said.

The marketing of The Chesnut Cottage comes at a time when the bed and breakfast business is unsettled in South Carolina. It was listed in the fall for $699,000. Garrett said he’s had a couple of people who’ve looked, but no offers.

Most inns that have sold in the past five years, perhaps a dozen, have been historic properties turned back into private homes, said Hoyt Dottry, president of the S.C. Bed & Breakfast Association.

“Candidly,” said Dottry, who owns a B&B in the Upstate, “a bed and breakfast affords you to live in a home that you normally could not afford and normally would not live in.”

At last count, about 135 B&B’s were operating in the state, he said. Many are destinations; people will go out of their way to stay at them because they prefer the experience of staying in a private home.

That’s the case for Bob and Donna Hester of Pittsburgh, who stopped at The Chesnut Cottage earlier this week on their way to Florida.

The couple are “regulars” who said they like the comfort, companionship and homemade breakfast they get at B&B’s.

“You meet a lot of great people from all over the world,” Donna Hester said.

The couple often travels with their dog, Kona, who is welcome to share their room at The Chesnut Cottage.

Garrett said that’s become an important amenity for his guests.

His 4,500-square-foot cottage has five suites, two of them located in the separate carriage house. The upstairs, with an intimate balcony, is devoted to the owners, Garrett and his newlywed wife Sherwood. (Diane Mitchell Garrett died from cancer in 1996.)

When Garrett bought the property in 1986, he paid $115,000 for a boarded-up house most recently used as a doctor’s office. He would do extensive renovations, notably adding bathrooms allowing guests to soak in whirlpool tubs.

“The house had been empty, I believe, for seven years. There were two original light fixtures left and some of the original doors were there. Basically, the walls of the house were original,” said Garrett, looking the part of a college professor with his gray beard and corduroy jacket.

“There were 44 missing window panes, I remember that.”

Garrett had experience with renovations — he flipped houses in the 1970s and ’80s — but nothing like this.

“Probably one of the most challenging things, and it’s created another obsession of mine, was finding suitable furniture for the B&B: 1860 is a pretty tough period to get back to.”

The B&B is in the same block as the Woodrow Wilson boyhood home. A spacious antebellum home across the street is being renovated to National Trust for Historic Preservation standards. When complete, that home will become a lawyer’s office.

As is often the case in Columbia, The Chesnut Cottage, circa 1850, also shares the block with buildings built a century later.

“It’s kind of a curious little block, really, because it’s got a combination of a lot of different architectural styles,” notes John Sherrer, director of cultural resources with the Historic Columbia Foundation.

Not only is The Chesnut Cottage one of the oldest homes in Columbia, Sherrer said, but it’s important as the site of a speech by Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. He addressed citizens from the front porch. A bedroom where Garrett deduced Jefferson slept is named for him.

Garrett said the cottage was rented to James and Mary Boykin Chesnut for parts of 1864 and 1865.

Mary Chesnut wrote “A Diary from Dixie,” published posthumously in 1905 and considered among the best accounts of the Civil War. Her husband, John, was a Confederate general, so her personal observations and recollections benefitted from her social connections.

“She provides a lot of insight into local families and things of that nature,” Sherrer said, “particularly some of her influential friends, such as the Hamptons and the Prestons.”

Garrett knows which bedroom was used by Mary Chesnut, based on a detail in her diary: She could see the spire of Washington Street United Methodist Church from her window.

About 125 years later, in 1991, the first guests of The Chesnut Cottage Bed & Breakfast would be gazing out that same window.

Garrett said his was the first B&B in Columbia.

The city’s other B&B, The 1425 Inn, owned by David and Karen Brown, is not far away.

Both rely heavily on football fans and visiting parents of USC students, along with corporate guests and leisure travelers.


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