Grovewood in Eastover first caught Brian Barnwell’s eye in 2014 while he was perusing websites in search of hunting land, and he sent a few links regarding the property to Mary Ellen, his wife. After she discovered that Grovewood was going to a private auction, Brian thought, “What’s the harm in looking.”
Mary Ellen and Brian arranged to visit Grovewood, which Fred Quattlebaum had purchased from the Adams family in 1993. The drive through an allée of 22 acres of pecan trees in a field of green rye grass to a classic three-story antebellum home seemed like a fantasy. “We spent about an hour and a half with Fred and his mom and loved the place but knew a home like this would have many challenges,” Brian says. “Fred’s restoration work and his attention to detail were nothing short of amazing, but the thought of buying a 255-year-old home with less than a week’s notice seemed a bit insane.”
Mary Ellen, who was only 29 at the time, was also a little intimidated at the thought of buying the grand Lower Richland property. Brian, while still uncertain about the timing, was dreaming of raising a family there; the couple now has two young sons, Ford and Beau, and two dogs, Lady and Coach. Then Mary Ellen, who lost her mother to cancer in 2012, felt that she received a sign that changed everything. As she walked Coach near their home in Hampton Trace, she encountered a rabbit. “Bunnies remind me of my mama,” Mary Ellen says. “I was walking Coach, and this bunny ran across the street and stopped in front of me, then turned and looked at me. I felt this peace. I called Brian and said, ‘We’re doing it. Let’s go.’”
An attorney with Nelson Mullins, Brian had a court date in Florence on the day of the auction and could not attend. Mary Ellen enlisted the help of her family’s longtime friend and advisor, Michael Graf, and the pair set out to attend the auction, which included about 80 other people.
In half an hour, Mary Ellen purchased the house and 22 surrounding acres, and she also was able to acquire some of Fred Quattlebaum’s antique furniture. Brian still had no clue. After his court hearing, he made it as far as a gas station in Camden before the auction started and he called Mary Ellen on the phone. “We’d agreed on a stopping number,” he recounts. “I could hear her bidding, and she was getting close to the stopping point. Then she hung up. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or bad, but I figured I should get over there. When I arrived, Mary Ellen came running down the front steps beaming and said, ‘I bought a house!’”
Brian and Mary Ellen were later able to purchase additional acreage, increasing the property to 180 acres. Raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Mary Ellen had little experience with country living. But her family’s roots are in Greenville and Clinton, where her grandmother lives in a 100-year-old, Victorian-style home. Brian, who grew up in Orangeburg, can trace his lineage to historic Carolina surveyor Colonel John Barnwell of Beaufort.
The original rooms at Grovewood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, are believed to have been built between 1765 and 1800. Purportedly moved to its current site in 1835, the structure was placed on pillars and connected to existing outbuildings. The home was saved from destruction in the Civil War in 1865. Christian Tucker Weston lived at Grovewood and her sister, Frances Tucker Hopkins, lived nearby at Wavering Place. One of the Union officers had been the roommate of Mrs. Weston’s husband at the Sorbonne in Paris, so he agreed to spare both homes.
After Fred acquired the property, he made extensive renovations to the three-story home, including new plumbing and electricity and fresh paint in historical colors. Brian particularly loves the functional green shutters. Expansive verandas on both the front and the back of the house feature heavy palmette molding. A joggling board from Mary Ellen’s family beach house sits on the main porch, while one that came with the house is situated on the ground level.
Originally, the back of the house was the front with an allée of oak trees, only one of which remains. Three goats, Buttercup, Cookie, and Pumpkin, are often found nibbling at the oak leaves. An immense tea olive bush brushes against the back porches, flanking one of the outbuildings, a doctor’s office once used by Dr. Weston, with an impressive cedar tree. Brian is quick to credit Alonzo Robinson & Sons for taking care of the grounds.
The exterior kitchen, which sat next to the doctor’s office, was destroyed by lightning, so an interior bedroom was converted to a small, modern kitchen. The family usually eats meals together around the small island, where the decor includes Mary Ellen’s original artwork and some unexpected rural treasures.
“Snakes are commonplace,” Mary Ellen says. “We find snake skins everywhere. I hang them in my kitchen. We have to have a sense of humor about this place. They’re here for a reason.” This past summer, Mary Ellen opened the front door to offer a Gatorade to her mail carrier, and a rat snake fell on her head. Things like that never happened to her in Atlanta.
Behind the doctor’s office are a barn and a hatchery, in which Fred once raised emus. Gravel pathways lined with antique brick define the backyard. Two years ago, the Barnwells added a swimming pool and pool house on the opposite side of the backyard. Landscape architects Ken Simmons and Drew Cheatham designed the addition to complement the historic buildings. “Without the pool in the summertime, with two kids, we’d all go crazy,” Brian says. Ken and Drew repurposed antique brick, found on the site, to construct columns for the fencing around the pool, complete with a fountain to provide the ambiance of running water.
McEntire Joint National Guard Base’s runway is visible through the pines. Brian says, “The kids love it at night because you can see the F-16s’ afterburners glowing.” A train track runs in front of Grovewood’s driveway. “When Ford was little,” Mary Ellen says, “he would run out in the driveway and say, ‘Mama, Thomas the Train is coming.’”
Fox squirrels and turkeys root around in the yard, and coyotes sometimes howl eerily in the middle of the night. A grey fox frequents the pecan orchard in the fall, and rare painted buntings visit a bird feeder in the enormous crape myrtle tree at the front entrance. A privet hedge divides the front yard from the orchard, and a pathway lined with azaleas and camellias leads to a secret garden.
The formal dining room, painted robin’s egg blue, is furnished with a Hepplewhite table and Chippendale chairs from Fred’s collection. From Mary Ellen’s childhood home, a china cabinet holds dishes, and a doll cabinet displays silver and crystal. Like all of the other rooms in the home, the dining room has a fireplace with a heavy mantel in the Federal style. The fireplace in the kitchen is hidden behind the cabinets, but Mary Ellen and Brian hope to reconfigure the kitchen and dining room in the future to expose it.
With a classic four-by-four design, the main living floor boasts a large hallway with a magnificent archway in the center. At Christmas, Mary Ellen and Brian usually place a tall Christmas tree in the middle of the hall, as Fred did. Beyond the archway is a buffet from Mary Ellen’s maternal great grandmother, along with a cherished portrait of Mary Ellen as a child with her mother.
Also on the main living floor is a formal parlor with crown molding plastered with traditional Federal-style shells and palmettos, a theme that carries over onto the verandas. An original six-panel door is an example of 1700s architecture, representing a Christian cross and an open Bible. The most striking piece in the parlor is an antique Baldwin baby grand piano from Mary Ellen’s paternal grandmother. An American Empire sofa, circa 1830, softens the space with lush green velvet upholstery.
Atop an elegant sideboard sits an Oriental porcelain bowl filled with orchids, Hart’s-tongue fern, and golden pothos, artfully designed by Cricket Newman. Mary Ellen relies on Cricket to help spruce up her houseplants, and she also calls on designer Karen Cheatham for decorating advice. “Karen’s been really great in helping us place things we already had,” Mary Ellen says.
Underneath the elevated home is a laundry room as well as storage areas, while the top floor features four bedrooms and two bathrooms, with a reading area in the hall with built-in bookcases. The winding Jefferson staircase includes a “robber stair” designed to trip burglars. Brian demonstrates an architectural detail that Fred added to gain easier access to the attic: a sliding ladder on a pulley. A view of the attic reveals hand-hewn beams assembled with pegs. “The wood is heart pine,” Brian says. “Most of the house is.”
Some of the art in the upstairs hall is by Mary Ellen Suitt, Mary Ellen’s paternal great-aunt. Located throughout the home are portraits that Fred purchased based solely on the subjects’ period dress. “My grandmother said, ‘Mary Ellen, don’t tell people that. You need to make up stories about these men and give them a purpose.’”
A rug from Mary Ellen’s grandmother anchors the master bedroom, and a beautiful settee adds the perfect touch to the end of the bed. “I actually bought it from a senior partner, who works at Nelson Mullins,” Brian says. “When I was 24, he was having a garage sale, and he didn’t want it anymore because it had completely faded in the sun. I bought it for $20, and it was filled with horsehair. We refurbished it, and it’s moved with us. I will not get rid of it. He was definitely being nice to me.”
Another treasured piece is a mirror that graces a corner of the master bedroom. “I think that’s the oldest piece in the house,” Brian says. “It was made in the 1600s. It was downstairs, and we moved it to prevent Nerf balls from breaking it.”
Across the hall from the master is a guest bedroom with twin pencil-post beds and an antique travel wardrobe, a gift from Mary Ellen’s paternal aunt that fits perfectly in the space. On the top balcony are two antique carriage lights that were painstakingly restored and gifted to Brian by his parents, Buddy and Margaret Barnwell of Orangeburg.
Mary Ellen and Brian are cognizant of the fact that they have assumed stewardship of Grovewood. “I’m really trying to instill in my children that we live here but we need to treat everything with care,” Mary Ellen says. The family particularly enjoys their home when they can share it with others.
Each February, the Barnwells host an oyster roast as a fundraiser for The Cavalry, a giving society for young benefactors of the Prisma Health Midlands Foundation. The idea stemmed from Mary Ellen’s desire to have a party on the anniversary of her mother’s passing, and over the years, what started as a small party has ballooned into a gathering of 200 guests. “As long as this place is useful to The Cavalry,” Mary Ellen says, “we’re happy to host it. We have the space. A lot of people don’t know that these gems in Lower Richland exist, and it’s fun to watch it through their eyes for the first time.”
Mary Ellen admits she had no idea what was south of Target on Garners Ferry Road before Brian found the property, but having lived in Atlanta, she is undeterred by the commute to Columbia. If Brian leaves for work at just the right time, he can arrive in less than half an hour.
Brian says, “For me, the drive home is the perfect distance. Once I turn off 378, Old Hopkins Road has beautiful trees that kind of envelop it, and that’s my decompression time. Mary Ellen always asks me, ‘How’s work?’ and I’ve already forgotten all about it. There’s always something different in season here, something in bloom, and I’m thankful I get to begin and end each day here.”