Oak Grove

Could it be a lost Robert Mills home?

By Deena C. Bouknight

Photography by Robert Clark

“Some places just resonate history,” says Bill Cross as he lifts the giant iron key off of the entryway table and walks toward the massive solid wood door. He slides the key into the intricate locking system and opens the door onto an expansive porch bordered by four two-story majestic Greek Doric columns. He points to the item that he and Mary Ann, his wife, have been on a mission to obtain for 12 years: a marker in their front yard designating the house on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Bill always appreciated historic structures, studying them even as a young college student. Mary Ann lived and raised her children in a designated historic home near Dobbs Ferry in New York. Before Bill retired in 2000 from his position as a senior systems manager for NASA at Goddard Spaceflight Center outside of Washington, D.C., he knew he wanted to spend his retirement years in a historic home — a place that could showcase his extensive collection of antiques. In 1997, Mary Ann, who had been selling historic real estate in South Carolina, showed widower Bill the circa 1820 home in Newberry named Oak Grove, and he was smitten, not only with the house but also with his agent. 

At the time of purchase, the home was in less-than-stellar aesthetic condition and was not entirely reflective of the time period in which it was built. The structure was sound and remarkably intact, despite almost 200 years of wear and tear. Still, the couple, who ended up marrying in 2001, set out on a three-year journey to restore the home to its original glory. 

 

Clues Along the Way

Fascinated with history, Mary Ann and Bill learned that Frederick Nance, Sr., born in 1770, was the builder of Oak Grove. He became one of the earliest settlers in the town of Newberry, 42 miles northwest of Columbia. Major Nance, as he was known, owned hundreds of acres and was a successful businessman, planter and respected public official. He had been Lieutenant Governor under Governor Drayton, served four terms in the State Senate and was on the committee on public buildings during his last term. While in the Senate, he served on the committee to persuade Charlestonian Robert Mills — known as America’s first native-born architect and designer — to be South Carolina’s engineer and to design courthouses and public buildings.

It was during this research that Mary Ann sent out photos of the house to her five children. Her son, John, commented that the house looked like a courthouse. Robert Mills designed both the courthouse and the jail — neither of which are now standing — in Newberry. The more the Crosses investigated and delved into the lives of Major Nance and Robert Mills, the more they became convinced that their home could be a Robert Mills residential design. 

What is significant about this discovery is that Mills is not only famous for designing several South Carolina courthouses, like the one in Camden, and also for the Washington Monument and many other buildings in D.C., but he was also under the tutelage of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello at the University of Virginia. Yet, he designed few residences. The only known house in South Carolina that was designed by Mills and is extensively documented is the Ainsley Hall (or Robert Mills House) in Columbia. Plus, the Crosses learned that Mills was in Newberry working on the courthouse and the jail at precisely the same time their house was being constructed; and the house is included on Mills’s map of the area. 

Besides the Major Nance connection, the Newberry public buildings and the coordinating time period, John Bryan, Ph.D., now retired professor of art history at the University of South Carolina and one of the foremost authorities on Robert Mills, became involved. Dr. Bryan authored Robert Mills: America’s First Architect and knows that Mills exhibited idiosyncrasies in his designs. For example, Mills focused on Greek revival style, yet he rarely signed his plans. Plus, he painted and penciled the mortar on the exterior to create an orderly pattern. Finally, some of Mills’ designs include interior shutters, which the Crosses’ house showcases as well. 

The Crosses were endeared by Dr. Bryan’s quote in a 2004 The State newspaper article featuring their suspicion that the home was a Robert Mills design: “When the Crosses called me and told me they might be living in a Robert Mills house, I thought, ‘baloney,’ but my grandmother always quoted me the poem, ‘The old cow’s tail hangs down behind, all ragged and full of burrs; but don’t make fun of it, my friend. She loves it because it’s hers.’ So I agreed to go to Newberry fully prepared to tell these nice people they didn’t live in a Robert Mills house.” After visiting the house, Dr. Bryan had to admit to the Crosses that they were most likely correct in their assumptions. 

Dr. Bryan wrote in a letter to Rodger Stroup, Ph.D., former head of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History: “I marvel it has been overlooked, but at the same time, I’m heartened: it proves there’s always more to be discovered.” 

 

Making it Official

With Dr. Bryan’s assistance, the Crosses began the tedious process of uncovering more evidence, working alongside those at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History — including, most recently, Ehren Foley, Ph.D., a historian. Their goal: to have the home nominated for the National Register designation. The couple made countless journeys to the Parklane Road facility and, in July 2014, received news that the Frederick Nance/Oak Grove House was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The application involves more than 20 pages of detailed history, structure descriptions, maps, photographs and floor plans. Even though there has yet to be uncovered any concrete evidence — a letter or a signed plan that Robert Mills designed the structure — so much points to this fact. In the application, the report states: “The floor plan is also indicative of Mills’ design. Mills was an early proponent of these types of functional spaces … the remnants of penciling that are visible on the exterior of the house also correspond to other buildings designed by Mills.” 

 “It was a long time coming,” says Dr. Foley. “The Crosses have been ardent and steadfast in making sure the house and the story is told. By adding this house, it becomes one of 23 individual listings now on the Register of Historic Places in Newberry County.”

Dr. Foley explains that the National Register of Historic Places is largely an honorific organization, which provides some tax incentives and some protection against specific threats such as the house torn down for a highway, for example. “It doesn’t really restrict the rights of property owners, but offers limited protections,” he says.

The next step, which took another six months, was approving the wording for and erecting the historic marker for the front yard of the home. The text had to be just right, including the facts that were known about Nance, and an attribution to and information about Robert Mills. A history lesson is presented on both sides. 

Nine months after the designation, the South Carolina Historic Marker was unveiled in the presence of more than 150 people — some of whom were relatives or descendants of some of the 16 families who lived in the home during its lifetime. Newberry’s mayor, Foster Senn, South Carolina Representative Walt McLeod, history-buffs and representatives from various organizations also attended. 

Dr. Bryan called the dedication day a “happy day for Newberry, for the State of South Carolina and, of course, for the memory of Robert Mills.”

The home’s history was shared, including the fact that it housed Union officers during Reconstruction and has evidence of bullet holes on its exterior. The entire home was open for tours after the commemoration and unveiling of the marker. Visitors were able to not only enjoy the Robert Mills architectural style, but also appreciate the Crosses’ extensive collection of 18th and early 19th century antiques. For example, the couple’s bed is a 1780 Charleston canopy bed. At its foot is a coverlet that was original to a family who once owned the house; it was brought to them after the home was renovated. The library, Bill’s favorite room, features floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a 1750 chest-on-chest once owned by a governor of Alabama. 

In addition to the National Register of Historic Places designation, a Daughters of the American Revolution Historic Preservation Recognition Award was also presented last spring. Mary Ann, who has long been a DAR member, was thrilled. “That was very special to me,” says Mary Ann, “My grandmother and mother were also members. It was wonderful.” 

In a letter written April 14, 2015 by Michael Bedenbaugh, executive director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, he says: “Mary Ann and Bill Cross have accomplished a wonderful service to their community and state for their tenacity and hard work in the restoration of Oak Grove. Their hard work on ensuring the story that Robert Mills designed the house displays a powerful sense of responsibility to ensuring not only the home is preserved, but the story that defines it as well.”

The Crosses feel that their living in the Frederick Nance Oak Grove home was meant to be. There is also some irony in the historic ties. In their research it was discovered that Mary Ann’s ancestors lived in Newberry as Quakers up until the time the home was built. Bill often admired the Washington Memorial while working in D.C. and then ended up living in a home that may have been designed by the architect. 

“We both love history,” says Mary Ann. 

“And we are only the caretakers for this wonderful gem,” adds Bill. 

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