Horsebranch Hall, an antebellum mansion located in Camden, looms over Jumelle Hill, commanding respect and admiration. Constructed in 1840 for Isabel and John McRae, the home was originally known as the McRae House. John, an immigrant engineer from Scotland, achieved a groundbreaking engineering accomplishment by installing Camden’s first running water system in the home. Through cisterns and a mortar conduit system, he not only accommodated the house with running water but also supplied an irrigation system for the land, drawing water from a nearby creek. He also contributed to the design of the house, implementing his ideas into the structure, formal gardens and pools — many aspects that are still apparent today.
Upon the McRaes’ deaths, the home passed to John’s bachelor brother, Colin. After his death, the house was sold outside of the family, allowing a new series of families to make Horsebranch Hall their home, each leaving a personal imprint on the house. Currently, Kathy and Bragg Comer and their three children, Braxton, Walker and Lydia, occupy the historical dwelling.
While living in the bustling city of Charlotte, the Comer family decided they wanted to relocate to a small town, and they found themselves captivated by Horsebranch Hall. They moved there in May 2008. “We like the feeling of living on a small farm, while being in town and close to great neighbors,” Kathy says. “This home tells a story, and we wanted to be a part of it.”
The exterior of the house is a combination of a colonial farmhouse and Greek revival architecture. The six massive white columns supporting the front of the house, coupled with the two stately staircases climbing up to the second floor porch, enhance the home’s grandeur. “The staircases were designed so men and women could walk up separately – one on each,” Bragg explains. “So when they hosted the big balls, the men couldn’t see the ladies’ ankles when they lifted up their dresses.”
The interior is the classic four-over-four design of the 1800s. Four large rooms are on each of the three floors, each with its own fireplace. The entire house was constructed with heart pine and Kershaw bricks. All of the hardwood floors and bricks are original to the home. The ground floor features an expansive, brick-floored hallway stretching the entire length of the house; rooms run parallel to the wide hall on each side.
“What is interesting about the downstairs is that initially there were no formal rooms,” Bragg says. “In the 1840s, the first floor was partially open and was used to hold the tack and saddles; the servants would drive the carriages through here. All the bedrooms and formal rooms were designed to be upstairs.”
The downstairs remained somewhat open until the early 1900s. During Reconstruction, approximately 1865 to 1877, many a Southern mansion’s survival depended on wealthy Northerners migrating south and maintaining a home’s beauty. Horsebranch Hall was no exception. Sometime after the home was sold out of the McRae family in 1901, the new owner closed in the first floor.
The kitchen, located in the back corner shoulder of the hallway, is walled with the original bricks. “There was an old brick factory in the late 1700s owned by Joseph Kershaw’s family,” Bragg says. He points to a ruddy brick in the wall with “Kershaw” imprinted on its side. “When they built the house in 1840, they used the bricks stamped with the factory’s name.”
On the second floor, the spacious hallway with 14-foot ceilings contains almost 30 feet of wide, unbroken heart pine floorboards, decorated with a lining of oriental rugs. “The neat thing about the original wood,” Bragg says, “is that nowadays you could not find heart pine lumber this long.”
The rooms that flank the second floor hallway serve as a guest bedroom, the library, Lydia’s room and the master bedroom. Massive tri-fold doors connect the guest room and library to the hallway, allowing the spacious rooms to combine into one large area. “They used to open these big doors if they were entertaining, and the space became the big ballroom,” Bragg says. “In the 1840s and 50s, all of the bedrooms were upstairs on the third level, and this floor was purely used for accommodating guests for parties or other functions.”
Outside, the porch’s ceiling is painted a hue known as “haint” blue. Painting a part of a house haint blue is a Southern tradition to keep away haunting spirits, Kathy says, and this is just a small example of how the home’s history permeates the interior design. “The history influences how we use the house day to day, so we designed the interior to be classic and traditional,” Kathy says. “Antiques honor the integrity of the home’s origins, yet we also make it livable for today.”
The Comers started with a base of existing pieces from their previous home, and Lee Cooney, a friend from Charlotte, helped decorate the home to not only represent its history but also to cater to the family’s interests. “Because the tall ceilings enlarge the scale of things, our approach was everyday comfortable living. Nothing is formal. We wanted to uphold the purity of the house in a realistic way by making it approachable and very user friendly,” explains Kathy.
The bricked, ground-floor hallway is covered by three oriental rugs with a base shade of red. Two armchairs placed by the stairs hold large red pillows with embroideries of white antlers. “The entire outdoors, from hunting and fishing to horseback riding, are subtle influences on the interior,” Kathy says.
The Comers display their love for hunting through their “chocolate den,” a living room with rich brown walls that showcase a trophy elk from Colorado and a caribou from Canada. The larger living room adjacent to the den contains a prominent deep brown couch with green trim, personalized with a brown pillow designed with a green horseshoe and a pronounced “C.”
“The Fox’s Den designed this logo for us,” Kathy says. “We wanted a horseshoe to convey the large role horses play in our day to day lives here at Horsebranch Hall.” This design is also featured on a set of the Comers’ bamboo chairs.
Throughout the house, an array of exquisite oil paintings decorate the walls, all painted by Bragg. Completely self-taught, Bragg works from photographs and paints places the family has visited or significant moments in their lives, creating a lasting memory from each experience. A large painting in the library depicts Braxton jumping his horse and serves as a centerpiece for the large room. On either side of the painting, wooden bookshelves line the green wall, surrounded by various pieces of furniture providing cozy reading spots. “During the winter, the library is my favorite place to be with a lit fire,” says Kathy.
The bedrooms throughout Horsebranch Hall are the strongest representations of each family member’s personality. Kathy and Bragg’s bedroom is peaceful with pale blue walls and soft tones. A small sitting area is located beside a sheltered fireplace beneath a vivid painting of a coastal marsh. “We had calmness in mind when decorating our master bedroom,” Kathy says. “The kids’ specific interests are evident through their rooms.”
Lydia, the youngest, snagged the largest room on the second floor, covering the walls with hot pink, flowers and ballet paintings. “It is quite a lot of pink,” Bragg laughs. The room is complete with a custom-made ballet barre, perfect for practicing pliés.
Braxton and Walker have their bedrooms on the third floor, along with two guest rooms. Braxton’s room is nature based with neutral colors and showcases his passion for hunting with a buck on one wall and a hog on the other. Walker’s room, with Tar Heel blue and white-striped wallpaper, bedspreads and carpeting, highlights his adoration for the University of North Carolina. “If he goes to a different college, we’ll have to redecorate,” Bragg says.
Situated on nine acres of rolling terrain, Horsebranch Hall is an ideal area for the Comer kids to grow up and an excellent location for horses. After renovating the barn, originally built in the early 1900s, the Comers brought horses back to the property, and it has been an activity the entire family enjoys. “Braxton, Lydia and I ride, while Walker and Bragg are the grooms,” Kathy says. “Braxton holds the entire operation together. He is out at the barn every morning before school.”
Becoming involved with horseback riding has allowed the Comers to experience fox hunting. “We have enjoyed being members of The Camden Hunt and now spend most weekends fox hunting, from opening day at Thanksgiving until mid-March,” Kathy says.
The Camden Hunt is the second oldest hunt in South Carolina, established in 1926. “Fox hunting in The Camden Hunt is such a symbol of tradition,” says Bragg. “It shows us the part of Camden that put it on the map, and it allows us to take advantage of what Camden is all about by being immersed in nature.”
The Comer family also appreciates certain aspects of Camden that only a small town can offer. “We really wanted to show our children the benefits of living in a small town with a close community,” Kathy says. “You see the whole of everyone’s life. Our kids ride to Sunday school on their bikes or mopeds, yet we live across the street from 13,000 acres of land where we can ride horses. Camden is small town living in a beautiful setting.”
The closeness the community members share with one another translates into each person’s relationship to Horsebranch Hall. “I feel a responsibility to maintain and respect this house,” says Kathy. “It belongs to the community because everyone has a connection in some way and can find a thread to this home.”