November 2008

Thomas Viljac: Adding More Charm to Old Town Bluffton

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. | Photographer: John Brackett

One of the really cool things about Bluffton, South Carolina is that it has its own state of mind. That’s what Blufftonians say anyway, and who is an islander to argue? An unfortunate circumstance of Bluffton’s land annexation initiatives that rival the Louisiana Purchase is the possibility that those not so familiar with the historic little town on the banks of the May River might mistake US-278 road rage for said state of mind. The tiny, richly historic and charmingly “artsy”—maybe eclectic is a better word—town could easily get lost in the clutter of that vast expanse of land and planned developments that has assumed the name of Bluffton.

Blufftonians are a proud people, though, and they’re not about to let that happen. They’re proud of their town’s heritage and charm, and they’re proud of the creative, somewhat unconventional essence that one can actually feel while strolling past rustic galleries, shops and dining establishments—the true Bluffton state of mind.

Changes are afoot in Bluffton, particularly the Old Town area (the “real” Bluffton) that add a bit of contemporary flair while punctuating, rather than changing, the town’s character. Examples include the Calhoun Street Promenade (actually on May River Road), a mixed-use development that gives Bluffton a small town “Main Street” or “downtown district,” and the town’s public initiatives to improve pedestrian friendliness with sidewalk and street lighting upgrades.

A short stroll down Calhoun Street from there, developer Thomas Viljac is getting into the act with the Carson Cottages commercial development. Don’t let that term commercial development scare you though. Carson Cottages is nothing like the “strip mall” style developments that line US-278. Instead, Carson Cottages is designed to look and feel like it belongs in the Old Town, and Viljac has gone a step further by creating a celebration of Bluffton’s rich history.

“I thought, hey, wouldn’t it be neat to do a project that isn’t a conventional development like everybody else’s? Put some history into it—something nobody else is doing in the historic district,” said Viljac. “I looked at Charleston with its courtyards throughout the city as an example, and tried to create a pedestrian friendly garden effect with a historical theme.”

In effect, Viljac has created an anchor to Calhoun Street, which is Bluffton’s “Main Street.” As the name suggests, the Carson Cottages do not fit the image of the type of building that the word commercial evokes. Each unit is a restored existing building, all of them cottage style structures, so they maintain the town’s physical character, and each cottage carries its own theme, telling a different slice of Bluffton’s history.

Such famous Southern personas from history with ties to Bluffton as General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, J.J. Carson (from whom Carson Cottages draws its name) and Middleton Stewart are honored throughout the Cottages. For example, Stonewall Cottage is named for General Jackson and the Captain’s Cottage is named for Captain John Durst, the Savannah bread and bakery baron who purchased the building in 1928.

Others are named to represent events or other bits and pieces of the Bluffton story. For example, Storm Cottage is named in remembrance of the great storm of 1933 that some longtime Blufftonians remember to this day. The Church Cottage pays homage to the First Baptist Church of Bluffton, founded by J.J. Carson in 1902.

Plaques placed on each cottage tell the story of the building’s individual historic significance, and interested visitors will have the opportunity to study these stories in greater depth at a historical museum that will complement the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society’s Heyward House on Boundary Street. The new museum is located in the restored Seven Oaks, a former boarding house at the end of Calhoun Street, built in 1850.

Presently—in addition to housing Viljac’s business—an art studio, a boutique and a photo studio have taken up residence in the Carson Cottages. According to Viljac, other leases are pending that would bring two restaurants and a professional office to the development. While commerce is its core reason for being, by design, the Carson Cottages is an attraction in and of itself, and this coincides well with Bluffton’s efforts to better brand the town as a tourist destination.

“The main road into the complex (called Captain’s Cove Road) is made of cobblestones taken from a street in Savannah. They’re 150 years old,” said Viljac. “I wanted to keep everything rustic and historically themed so that the public—tourists—would be intrigued to come in and say, ‘hey, what’s the story behind this?’” A second Carson Cottages phase is planned that will include five more cottages themed around the old Bluffton Dispensary (that’s where they sold alcohol) which is the present site of the May River Realty building.

Though not a native Blufftonian, Viljac’s roots are pure South Carolina. He was born and raised in Summerville and graduated from The Citadel with a degree in civil engineering. An admitted “numbers guy,” Viljac’s interest in history came about while working part-time in the antiques business in his college days. He came to Bluffton to work as a civil engineer after graduation and then went into construction so he could work on projects like the Carson Cottages. Bluffton has enjoyed the benefit of his development skills and sense of history ever since.

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