Striking Camp: Inside Spring Island's River Camp

DiningRoom As you approach River Camp, the Spring Island home of Jim and Betsy Chaffin, the world recedes away from you in layers.

It begins on the main road onto Spring Island, a thin ribbon of pavement winding beside old pheasant fields and under the branches of Live Oaks. The next layer falls when the pavement runs out, and you find yourself on a hard-packed dirt lane, scarcely larger than a car and seemingly transplanted from some far-off rural plantation. And you keep going. Through forests that grow ever denser, you keep going.

And then the dirt road stops.

It is here you proceed slowly, following two mossy ruts that wind between impossibly large boulders and cement pilings left behind from old forestry service watch towers.

Then, you arrive, and the full brilliance of this place yawns before you.

This entrance, the way the home reveals itself to you, is no accident.

It’s just the opening flourish of an architectural masterpiece.

“A place for living beside the river is traced on the forest floor by means of a rectangular trellis,” wrote architect Jim Thomas. “Transparent and covered in vines, the trellis becomes an amature, or organizing principal of the compound.”

Indeed, the trellis is the first thing you see of this marvelous “camp.” It is the architectural heart of the home. Where the trellis crosses the carport and studio space, it stretches across as an arbor. Where it hits the main house, it climbs the steps and joins the porch as a roof. And where it hits the front wall of breathtaking windows, its large green posts become a part of the building’s structure.

And defined by the barriers of the trellis is a court brimming with native vegetation, spotted here and there by astoundingly large boulders.

According to Betsy, those boulders serve as a reminder that nature came first.

“It’s actually very hard-packed compressed earth,” she said. “And over time, the rain will gradually wear them down and return them to the earth.”

Within one photo lies three amazing details of this house. 

The first, on the left, a sliver of tabby wall. Using the same formula of oyster shells and lime, Betsy and Mike Reynolds of MJR Builders created tabby walls within the main house and in the guest house. 

Guests dazzle in the hidden gems Betsy tucked at odd places around the walls — shells, beer caps, deer bones, and even the odd raccoon paw.

In the center, the flowing staircase serves as a visual centerpiece to the main living area and a reminder of the philosophy behind the house’s main room, where wide open beams meet a tabby fireplace, wrapping around beautiful artwork to a rich hardwood floor.

“Imagine that space without that musical staircase,” said Jim. “It’s part of  a symphony of the space that’s there.”

“There’s an underlying structure to Jim’s architecture that has a rhythmic quality,” added Betsy. 

Well you know, architecture has been referred to as frozen music.

And finally, framing the staircase are two columns that not only speak to the respect the couple has for history, but keep a little piece of the architect in his creation.

“They came from a Greek revival building in Beaufort, they were salvaged because an owner in the 1950s modified a structure and did away with an existing porch. Someone in the family saved the columns,” Thomas said. 

As it happens, the building had belonged to Thomas’ grandfather. The family was his.

“I have a lithograph in my office showing Steven’s Brigade occupying Beaufort on the evening of Dec. 5, 1861,” added Jim. “And that building, those columns, are in the lithograph.”

The Chaffins have a deep love for Spring Island’s rustic charm, a love that served them well when they were developing the community in the ’90s. Everything about the development shows an abiding reverence for nature, and that continues at the River Camp.

The site was selected due to its proximity to the Colleton River, and the way the site hugs a bend in its gentle curves.

“We open up one whole wall and the river is right there,” said Jim. “And if you look out of the kitchen windows, you still see river. It’s like being on a boat.”