Charleston’s Most Expensive Home Is Steeped in Mystery
Imagine sitting in front of a roaring fire, puffing on a fine cigar, sipping an even finer cognac and saying to nobody in particular, “I live in the Sword Gate House that was built by Solomon Legare.”
Even without context, it just sounds impressive. Said with context, it’s even better.
Of course, you’ll need a whole lot of money because Sword Gate is the most expensive home in Charleston, South Carolina. With a backstory that includes ghosts, scandals, famous residents and all sorts of mystery, this mansion also qualifies as one of the South’s most interesting properties currently for sale.
A Price Fit for a King
Sword Gate’s list price: a staggering $17.5 million. That’s $1,021 per square foot, almost 10 times the city’s average price per square foot of $196, according to Zillow.
The list price itself is roughly 58 times more expensive than the average home price in Charleston ($304,221).
Swords Made of Iron
Sword Gate takes its name from its pair of wrought iron entrance gates. Each intricately designed gate features a sword at its midsection; when shut, the blade tips appear to touch.
The gates were commissioned in 1838 by Christopher Werner, a rather well-known ironworker. There are competing origin stories, however. In one popular story, it’s said that when Werner was asked to design a pair of iron gates for the guard house, he misunderstood what a “pair” meant. He produced two identical sets of gates. They used one for the guard house while the other waited for a buyer.
By 1850, the mansion’s owner at the time, a man named George Hopley, bought and installed them at 32 Legare Street (pronounced Legree). The other gates are now located at The Citadel, a military college in Charleston.
You’re Walled in Here
The home and its 0.87-acre grounds are entirely surrounded by a tall, stately brick wall. But was it intended to keep intruders out — or the house’s occupants inside?
As with nearly everything in the South, there’s a story to be told.
It Used To Be a Girls’ School
Around 1816, a couple of refugees from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Andre Talvande and Ann Talvande, purchased the home and turned it into an exclusive school for young women. (It’s not clear if Andre was Ann’s son or husband.) Named Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies, the school taught finishing-school education for high-end clients.
In other words, it was a private school for Charleston’s elite. It remained open until Madame Talvande’s death in 1850.
It’s possible that the surrounding walls were put in place for the school’s privacy — and also to keep the boys out and the girls in.
It didn’t always work.
Ghosts, Scandals and Yankees
It wouldn’t be a 200-year-old Southern mansion without some ghosts, right? Here’s the story:
A young Yankee gent named George Morris from New York met a sweet southern girl named Maria Whaley at Edisto Island, located a few miles south of Charleston. The two were hopelessly in love. But Maria’s father, a wealthy plantation owner, wasn’t having any of George’s lower class Yankee crap. To make sure the two separated for good, he whisked Maria away to Talvande’s school. He knew Madame Talvande was strict and kept an ever-watchful eye on her students.
George eventually found Maria. The two hatched a plan to stay together, forever. During the day, Maria crept out of the school’s grounds, met with George, and the two ensconced in a nearby church. They were married. Maria then snuck back into the school.
The next day, George arrived and requested to meet with Mrs. Morris. When Madame Talvande figured out what had occurred, and that a student of hers had escaped from under her nose (and later, how everyone in town knew about it), she flew into a rage. Legends say she went to work building Sword Gate’s high walls so no other students could sneak away. To make sure she glued broken glass onto its tops.
Madame Talvande never recovered from the high-society scandal, and never forgave herself. Now her ghost wanders the mansion, peering in and out of windows, making sure no one escapes her watch again. She’s like a bonus security system.
In this tale, the two kids went on to live a happy life together. While this sounds a bit anticlimactic, it’s because Maria and George really did get married.
Maybe That’s Why the Porch Ceiling Is Blue
The home’s three-story wraparound porch has a ceiling painted a breezy “Haint Blue.” Haint is southern slang for haunt or ghost, and the color blue was supposed to have a protective power.
According to Southern Living, the tradition originated in South Carolina and Georgia from the Gullah Geechee communities, which were descendants of African slaves. The Gullah Geechee, Betsy Cribb writes, “painted their doors, windows frames, shutters, and their porch ceilings blue as a means of protection. They believed that the color would act as a sort of repellant for ‘haints,’ or spirits of the dead, who may try to enter their homes.”
The blue color would either confuse spirits into thinking the ceiling was the sky — so they’d pass right through it — or, in another interpretation, would trick the ghosts into thinking the color was water, which they couldn’t cross.
Of course, this would only trap Madame Talvande inside the home.
The Dining Room Is a Sea of Wallpaper
Sword Gate’s dining room doesn’t have an edge. The room’s walls are covered with a hand-painted mural depicting a balmy seascape and fluffy clouds.
Famous Historical Figures
Sword Gate has been home to some notable historical figures. Mary Chesnut, who wrote the (posthumously awarded) Pulitzer prize-winning war diaries “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War,” attended Madame Talvande’s school.
In 1930, a granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln, Jessie Lincoln Randolph, purchased the home.
Who Built This Place?
A French Huguenot named Solomon Legare built this home around 1803. The Legare family immigrated to South Carolina way back in the late 1600s, fleeing France to avoid prosecution for its Protestant faith. Sword Gate sits on Legare Street, which is named after the Legares.
During this century, Sword Gate was a museum sometime between when Lincoln’s granddaughter left the home and prior to the 1950s. In 1952, the mansion operated as an inn. The owner split the property into five separate parcels, and divided the main house with a new interior wall.
The Sword Gate Inn kept its curly iron gates open until 1998, when the house was sold to the current owners, who turned it back into a single parcel property and renovated the place, with history in mind.
It’s on Sale
After that hefty renovation, the mansion originally went up for sale in 2009 for $23 million. It couldn’t find a buyer and was delisted in 2013, then came back on the market for $19.5 million in 2016.
Property records say the home sold for just $3 million in 1998, likely before a serious makeover.
It’s a Huge Place
This mansion is gigantic.
With 17,142-square-feet of ghosts and glory, Sword House offers 13 full bathrooms, three half-baths and nine bedrooms. Aside from the main house, there’s a separate staff wing, a conservatory and a converted carriage house that hosts two apartments.
Among other touches: 12 fireplaces, two formal dining rooms, a grand ballroom and 12-foot ceilings.
Check Out These Colorful Bedrooms
At least four of Sword Gate’s bedrooms are colorful.
One is decked out in royal green with flower wallpaper. A light red-and-white, beachy vibe highlights another. An attic room basks in a blue-and-white nautical theme while the master is dressed in beige, with a fireplace not far from the bed.
The Kitchen Is Definitely New World
While there might be a stove from the frontier era somewhere, the main kitchen is incredible. It includes an island, as well as a classic ceiling-mounted pot rack, a beamed ceiling, a stainless steel stove, dumb waiters to send food upstairs, butcher block countertops and a wall-length curved countertop with brick backsplash.
Another modern touch: There’s an inset flat screen television.
The Garden Is Divine
What’s the use of big brick walls if you can’t strut about outside on a Sunday afternoon?
The shade of huge Southern Oaks, the smell of crepe myrtles and jasmine, the fountain garden, the croquet lawn and the reflecting pool provide incentive to do just that.
Attention to Detail Was Paramount
While the home did receive an extensive renovation during the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Sword Gate retains its old world charm. Preservation architects helped rebuild the home to its original grandeur.
The master bathroom has a small, freestanding soaking tub next to a fireplace, there’s an old timey stove in a kitchen, and “Adamesque wood work, plaster work and composition” can be found throughout the home, according to the listing.
A slew of historical architects made sure the remaining moldings were painstakingly restored to their original looks, and anything damaged or lost was restored via historically accurate techniques.