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Low Country Design Meets Southern Languor

By Stephen Kelly, regional editor






Historic materials and patterns were sourced by the landscape architect by looking at streets and squares in and around Savannah's historic district. Sandset tumbled-brick pavers (Boral Brick, sourced through Savannah Hardscapes) bring a quaint look to the street around the village square. Sidewalks throughout the village are a narrow 4-feet wide with low granite curbs. Color blends developed for the project are based on historic patterns and colors.


Palmetto Bluff is an upscale residential community/nature preserve/resort area in South Carolina's low country, roughly equidistant between Savannah, Ga., to the west and Hilton Head Island, S.C. to the east, or in driving terms, 20 minutes from Hilton Head, 30 minutes from Savannah and an hour and half from Charleston. (Whew! I'm lost!) The bluff is 20,000 acres of private island in a freshwater estuary, about one-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan, although slightly less crowded and laid back, as some of my generation used to say. The bluff is defined by three rivers: the headwaters of the May River along the shores of the town of Bluffton, Cooper River to the east and salt and freshwater marshlands of the New River to the west. (Now I'm really lost.)






A Crescent Development staff member and forester Van Pitts located and transplanted live oaks from 5’’ to 16’’ caliper into the village core in a "naturalistic pattern." The existing specimen oaks around the village square and surrounding streets were planted or germinated over 100 years ago or more. The largest oaks are 50-60-inch caliper with a spread of 80 feet or more.


Large live oaks more than a century old, garnered by Spanish moss and resurrection fern--so southern--define Palmetto Bluff. Magnolia, southern pine, saw palmetto and cabbage palms, wax myrtle and bracken ferns also proliferate. The wetlands abound in Spartina and widgeon grass, and marine life thrives in the waterways. (Look, a bottle-nosed dolphin--or maybe it was a tarpon.) You can also spot red drum and flounder, spotted sea trout, crabs and shrimp.

Critters of the feathery persuasion include the statuesque, stealthy great blue heron, snowy egrets, wood storks, bald eagles, ospreys, red-tailed hawks, woodpeckers, migratory species (buntings, warblers, waxwings, ducks) and Ben Franklin's flightless choice for national bird--the wild turkey. (Look! A wild turkey! No, that's a shrub.)

The mammal population can also be spotted: rabbits, coyotes, gray foxes, fox and gray squirrels, raccoons, minks, and white-tailed deer and bobcats. (Aside: As a youth growing up in the mountains of Colorado, one of our cabin neighbors, Burt, went to get his rifle when he heard the wail of a bobcat: turned out to be the neighbor lady singing. True story.)






A detail of one of the 18-foot wide roads that traverse the village.


The Bluff is fairly flat, but sits over 20-feet above sea level, so the vistas of the 32 miles of rivers and salt marshes are vast. The Palmetto Bluff community is The Village, a commercial and riverfront area, home to the Inn & Spa at Palmetto Bluff, managed by Auberge Resorts.

The Palmetto Bluff Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that oversees the protection of Palmetto Bluff's natural resources, funded through an enhancement fee paid upon the sale of each bluff property. The foundation reports it manages 605 acres of conservation easements located within the Headwaters tract. To preserve the natural surroundings, the foundation decided to divide 435 acres overlooking the May River into 10 large parcels of land (14 to 31 acres). The original plan was to split the property into 90 home sites. Approximately one-third of Palmetto Bluff property has been preserved.






The Inn at Palmetto Bluff, which includes 54 cottages, rental homes and a spa, anchors one side of the village square. A warm season grass (Zoysiagrass) was selected for the lawn areas. It is a low growing, creeping, heat-resistant, wiry grass. Bahiagrass, a native grass, is in the forest clearings. Aside from the oak, the southern magnolia is the naturally occurring accent tree with wax myrtle, saw palmetto and dwarf palmetto supplying the understory. Vinca minor, Confederate jasmine and saw palmetto are the low ground covers in village right-of-ways. The village paths throughout the community are crushed granite (plantation fines) confined by steel edging (Border Concepts).


Historical Tidbits

The Yemassee and Altamaha tribes were the native inhabitants, although French explorer Jean Ribaut surveyed the tidal lands and had the Gallic hutzpah to claim it for France in 1561. Later, the Spanish, Scots and English also figured it was theirs. Beaufort was settled by Euro-Americans in 1710. By the mid-1800s, 21 parcels of land, many cotton plantations, had sprung up. One H.A. Estill monopolized the land by the early 1900s, but sold his 18,000 acres to R.T. Wilson of New York City. Wilson's son Richard began building the ostentatious 72-room Palmetto Lodge in 1911, which burned to the ground in 1926.

Palmetto Bluff was then sold to J.R. Varn, who used it for turpentine production and cattle ranching. The property was sold to Union Bag and Paper Company (later to become Union Camp), which built a lodge and used the land as a hunting retreat. (Look, a wild turkey! Don't shoot! That's Bob.) Crescent Resources, LLC, acquired Palmetto Bluff in June 2000. Palmetto Bluff Village opened last September, and The Inn & Spa at Palmetto Bluff October 30, 2004.






The Village Square, with a view of the bakery (right) and post office (left). The brick-patterned square contrasts with the asphalt road, with mountable two-inch ribbon curb detail, set high so future asphalt repaving will have sufficient space.


Palmetto Bluff Streetscape

Hart Howerton, Ltd., is responsible for the land planning, authoring the design guidelines for the village and community, and designing the village streetscape. The firm is also the architect/landscape architect for the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, an Auberge Resort of 54 cottages and a spa, anchoring one side of the village square.

Access to the village is across a gas-lantern illuminated bridge span, one of the five pedestrian/vehicular bridges crossing over newly created lagoons that separate the mainland from the village. "The bridges integrate the dark green-black theme color, with traditional brick buttressing and piers, and pier-mounted gas lanterns that reflect light onto the water at night," Anne Howerton explains. The bridges, fabricated in sections by Steadfast Bridge Company, are based on details provided by Hart Howerton, including rail, buttressing and aesthetics of the bridge design.






Follow the red brick road to the village chapel. Copper gas lanterns and cast steel poles (Bevolo) randomly spaced and staggered on both sides of the narrow streets and located close to sidewalks, bring a mellow illumination for the pedestrian walks. Hart Howerton customized the design of the pole base to incorporate the name of the community on the side facing the sidewalk.


"Streetscape elements follow a turn-of-the-century approach respectful of the low-country setting and vernacular architecture," notes Howerton. Those elements are gas lantern streetlights, narrow brick sidewalks, low granite curbs and sand-set tumbled brick paving around a central village square that "preserve the foundation and columns of a celebrated mansion from the turn of the century," observes Howerton. Original site details include street signs that end in the silhouette of a pointing hand, custom-cast finials shaped like palmetto, and cast bronze street names mounted in the sidewalk at major intersections.

"Rigorous guidelines were applied to the design of the community streetscape and individual village lots with regard to the signage, fencing, lighting, paving and other landscape elements to ensure a coherent street scene," Howerton adds.






Five eye-catching bridges for pedestrians and vehicles cross over newly-created lagoons that separate the mainland from the village. The bridges integrate the dark green-black theme color with traditional brick buttressing and piers, and pier-mounted gas lanterns. The bridges were fabricated in sections by Steadfast Bridge Co., based on details provided by Hart Howerton, who customized the rail details, buttressing and aesthetics of the bridge design.


The Street Scene

"(We) let the natural setting dominate, planning the streetscape around and preserving the big trees, writing guidelines that preserve the natural landscape and go beyond to describe the built elements and look of a place with a distinctive regional character and historic roots," Anne Howerton explains. "The layout of the streets, therefore, depended upon accurate surveys and some unconventional road alignments, which add to the charm and sense that this place has developed over time."

Narrow streets, 18-feet wide with small radius corners, traverse the village. The designed tight streetscape, with speed limits of 15 mph, caters to ambulating and pedaling over internal combustion horse power. Master-planned, asphalt-surfaced bike paths, brick sidewalks and walking paths along the bluff encourage foot power recreation, although the trail system does allow that most accursed of vehicles--the golf cart.






Custom cast metal street signs with blades (shape of a hand pointing) and finials (palmetto frond) designed by Hart Howerton and fabricated by Allen Architectural are set into the paving at street corners. Traffic signs within the village are downscaled from regulation roadway signs to fit the residential scale, although on outlying community collector intersections and highway intersections DoT standard signs are used for safety.


The seven-foot radius street corners did require special sidewalk conditioning--concealed turf reinforcing at the corners to accommodate the turning radius of fire trucks. The design allows fire trucks to mount the four-inch curb, traveling across the curb and lawn/sidewalk area.

The patterns and color blends of the tumbled brick pavers, sand-set as street paving around the village square, are based on streets and squares in and around Savannah's historic district. The brick sidewalks throughout the village are four-feet wide. Details include varied brick sidewalk patterns within neighborhoods and custom-cast metal street signs set into paving at street corners meeting the main thoroughfare. Brick contrasts with the asphalt road, with mountable two-inch ribbon curb detail, set high so future asphalt repaving will have sufficient space.

Garages at the back of lots are accessed via alleys only 12-feet wide to preserve the intimate street scene. Guest parking is in parallel brick bays, located where opportunities presented, opposite side yards, rather than directly fronting cottages. Large scale parking is located just outside the village in a community recreation complex and retail area.






A Palmetto Bluff cottage overlooking the May River festooned with sabal palmetto. The sabal palmetto, aka the cabbage palmetto, is the official tree of South Carolina, so decreed by legislative resolution in 1939. It is represented on the state flag and seal, symbolic of the Sullivan Island fort built of Palmetto logs that engaged British ships of war. The palmetto is common in coastal South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The palmetto leafbud has been used in salads and for making pickles and relishes.


Plant Palette

The plant palette was kept simple, maintaining the dominance of the native coastal maritime forest within the village core and the community. Howerton said the design guidelines preserve and extend the dominant canopy species to bring a harmony and unity. Live oaks were transplanting into the village core in naturalistic patterns.

A Crescent Development staff member and forester Van Pitts located and transplanted up to 12-inch caliper live oaks. Existing specimen oaks around the village square and surrounding streets were planted or germinated over 100 years ago or more, some 50-inch to 60-inch caliper with spreads of 80 feet or more.






The narrower streets and small radius corners were design elements, but they still had to meet fire emergency vehicle standards. That was solved by the use of concealed turf reinforcing at the corners, allowing a fire engine to mount the four-inch curb and travel across the curb and lawn/sidewalk area.









Sabal Palmetto are used as accent trees in isolated rows along the bluff and where space is limited in front of storefronts. Southern magnolia are the naturally occurring accent tree. Saw palmetto, dwarf palmetto and wax myrtle, typical of the surrounding coastal forest, provide understory. Vinca minor and Confederate jasmine are the low ground covers in village rights-of-way. The lawn areas are zoysiagrass, with native bahiagrass in the forest clearings.

Lighting & Amenities

Historic copper gas lanterns from Bevolo, randomly spaced and staggered on both sides of the narrow streets close to the sidewalks
to enhance the pedestrian experience, cast a mellow glow. Hart Howerton customized the design of the cast-steel pole base to incorporate the name of the community on the side facing the sidewalks. The gas street lighting extends beyond the village to the outlying neighborhoods.






The central Village Square is a simple expanse of lawn shaded by oaks and facing the view of the May River just below the bluff on one side of the square. Remnants of a stairway and columns of a turn-of-the century grand southern home add a historic touch.


Signs

The village signs are custom-made, downscaled from standard regulatory size to fit the residential scale. Custom sign blades (shape of a hand pointing) and finials (palmetto frond) for street signs were designed by Hart Howerton and fabricated by Allen Architectural. On the outlying community and highway intersections Department of Transportation standard signs were used for safety.

Next time you're down in these parts, drop on down, hear.

    Project Details

  • The Palmetto Bluff team was led by Jim Mozley and David Howerton of Hart Howerton as the overall master planners instrumental in setting forth a clearer vision for Palmetto Bluff.
  • Other team members provided invaluable contributions:

  • Developer: Crescent Development (Jim Mozley, John Yelverton, Bill Peacher, and Benny Jones)
  • Civil engineers: Thomas and Hutton
  • Landscape sourcing: Savannah Hardscapes (hardscape elements) and The Greenery (softscape elements)
  • Project land planners, architects, and landscape architects: Hart Howerton was responsible for writing the design guidelines for Palmetto Bluff, for the planning of the community and village, and for developing the landscape and streetscape elements mentioned by this article. Design team members included Dave Howerton, Anne Howerton, Craig Roberts, and Amy MacPhee, four of the firm principals.
  • Landscape construction administration representation for Hart Howerton: John Nartowicz, LACC Intl.


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June 16, 2019, 10:38 pm PDT

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