Home Sweet Home on Cainhoy Plantation
Down a side street on the Cainhoy peninsula, beyond the commercial developments and congestion of the Clements Ferry corridor, an unassuming dirt road juts into a forest of towering pines.
At the entrance to the property there is no grand, elaborate emblem. No prominent designation or display announcing who owns the land or its ties to the late Harry Frank Guggenheim, a wealthy businessman and investor who purchased the massive parcel on the Cainhoy peninsula in the 1930s as a hunting and timber preserve.
Instead, on a small white wooden sign planted in the ground are the letters P-L-J…the only indication in these parts of the prominent and philanthropic family affiliated with the 9,000 acre parcel known as Cainhoy Plantation. For Peter Lawson-Johnston I, who inherited the property in the form of a charitable remainder trust in 1971 from Guggenheim, his cousin, that is exactly as it should be. Lawson-Johnston, now 90, and his extended family have chosen to live quietly and peaceably here for nearly half a century, spending holidays and other special occasions on land they have come to love.
Last fall, as they do most every year, the family gathered once again at Cainhoy for Thanksgiving – bringing close to 20 family members along, including children and grandchildren. Peter Lawson-Johnston II invited The Daniel Island News on a tour of the property during their time in town to offer some insights on Cainhoy, and why the family has, somewhat reluctantly, decided to move forward with plans to transform it into a large-scale residential community. Joining us for the ride is Matt Sloan, president of the DI Development Company, the entity managing the property’s development. The pair met in graduate school and have been close friends for 30 years.
As we enter the nature-rich parcel, which extends from the Wando River across Clements Ferry Road to the Cooper River, the forest is ablaze with leaves speckled with oranges, yellows and reds to mark the fall season. Bright green off-shoots of the pines burst forth along the road, which in some places consists of just two single tire tracks imprinted in the underbrush. The trees above act as canopies over ancient pathways that now serve as roads, arching as if to extend a protective embrace to all who travel beneath.
Peter is dressed in a simple black turtleneck and jeans - a sharp contrast to the professional suits he often dons as a managing partner of Guggenheim Partners LLC, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Clearly more comfortable in today’s attire, Peter ambles along in a white pick-up truck bearing mud-caked evidence of his off-road travels. He knows each bend in the road, each fork that branches off in a new direction. Like an old house that has been in a family for generations, Peter is familiar with each and every “room.” For the Lawson-Johnstons, the outdoors is home – their primary living area. They are proud to be called “stewards” of this land. It is a title they are honored to hold and one they do not take lightly.
“They’re passionate about it,” says Matt, whose team is also responsible for developing Guggenheim’s former property on Daniel Island into the community it is today. “It’s a very important place for them.”
THE GUGGENHEIM LEGACY
As we take in the surrounding landscape, Peter shares pieces of his family’s inspiring history. We talk about his great-grandfather Solomon Guggenheim’s pursuits in creating transformative, thought-provoking art museums such as the famed Frank Lloyd Wright-designed “Guggenheim” in New York, one of the city’s “most recognizable landmarks” says Peter, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, which helped convert a rundown industrial town into a thriving cultural destination.
“Have you seen that design?” Peter asks, referencing the Bilbao site. “It’s crazy cool!”
But Harry Guggenheim, Solomon’s nephew, is the main focus of our conversation – and Peter clearly delights in talking about this special family tie. As he explains, Harry is credited with a number of significant achievements in his lifetime, including his support of groundbreaking research into the field of aviation in the early 1900s. Harry was close friends with Charles Lindbergh (the first to make a solo transatlantic flight) and Gen. James Doolittle (of the famed “Doolittle Raid” after the bombing of Pearl Harbor), both of whom visited Cainhoy.
“At dinner one time, Harry asked Lindbergh what he was most fearful of,” adds Peter. “And he said ‘bad weather.’ Had he run into fog or clouds he couldn’t get up above, he didn’t have the instrumentation to safely do that. So Harry said let’s see what we can do about that problem. He engaged Jim Doolittle and this guy by the name of Elmer Sperry and they funded a laboratory and discovered what they called ‘blind flight’ –or instrument flight, which is essentially the invention of the artificial horizon…That was the real start of (modern) aviation.”
Both Solomon and Harry, as well as other family members, also started foundations to serve others or better understand the world in which we live.
“The family has been successful in a variety of different endeavors and they really achieved that success by identifying super talented people and challenging them to be innovative and creative at building their product or service to a higher standard,” notes Peter. “And finally, to stick with it, to persevere.”
‘FROZEN IN TIME’
As our drive continues, talk shifts from the Guggenheim family legacy to the land unfolding before us. We bump along the uneven surface of the dusty road, over the small branches and scattered pinecones that have fallen onto our path. Along the way a gaggle of turkey hens scurry in front of the truck before retreating into the recesses of the forest. Peter stops in front of the family’s quail pen and we get out to have a look. Later, we pass a nearby hunting dog kennel.
“Harry built that,” says Peter, referencing the structure.
We also hear tales of elusive wild boars, who have left their mark in the form of upturned dirt on the property, as well as bobcats and other creatures – but they stay hidden on our tour.
“We have traps for these hogs,” says Peter. “We’ve been trying to catch them…I can start a zoo with all the animals I have pictures of, but no hogs!”
Eventually we come to the main lodge, a stately but modest abode by today’s standards.
“It’s frozen in time,” Matt comments, as we enter through the front door and are greeted with a musty scent. You can almost smell the history.
“Really, we haven’t changed anything in a long, long time,” says Peter, directing us inside.
The furnishings and décor are much the same as when Harry lived here, he continues. The main living room, centered around a large fireplace, features bookcases filled with mementos, including a framed photograph of former Governor Mark Sanford with members of the Lawson- Johnston family. On a writing desk sit two guest books, featuring the signatures of visitors over the last 70 plus years. Down a hallway off the foyer is a wall decorated with several large maps of the Charleston Harbor and the Cainhoy peninsula. Also hanging is a framed copy of a News & Courier article, dated March 14, 1937, that documents the construction of the home. Guggenheim built the “well-appointed dwelling” for $250,000, the article states.
Peter then leads us down towards the bedrooms, where the beds and furnishings are all original to the home. Simple, classic, clean and traditional.
“It’s basically four bedrooms,” he says. “And that’s it. Nothing too fancy.”
On the way back towards the main part of house, we pass hunting and fishing gear hanging on a row of pegs in the hallway – symbolic of the family’s love of being out in nature. Peter points out a TV in a nearby sitting room.
“Have you ever seen a TV that old?” he asks. “We don’t watch TV normally.”
Although Peter shows us the dining area, it is not a space they use very often.
“Every lunch we eat is outside,” he says.
In the backyard is an old bell. Peter tells us they used to use it as a supper bell, but not anymore. He points out some tennis courts in the distance.
“The sisters play there a little bit,” he says, as we walk towards a dock on Yellow House Creek, which runs behind the property. Peter gestures to a spot where the family likes to picnic.
“In the summertime you almost can’t get out here without the mosquitoes taking you away!” he adds.
As we approach the water, he concedes he didn’t do any creek jumping as a kid, but they did partake in other outdoor adventures.
“Hunting and fishing!” Peter exclaims. “Nowadays, we play golf during the day, but then hunt in the afternoon.”
THE FUTURE AT CAINHOY
As we load back into the truck and continue our tour, talk shifts to future plans for Cainhoy Plantation. Current plans for the site call for some 9,000 new residences, mixed-use retail, parks, trails, a recently announced 500-acre nature conservancy, and provisions for neighboring community expansion and affordable housing opportunities. Three public schools on the site have already opened.
Daniel Island was also previously owned by Harry Frank Guggenheim. Upon his death, the land passed to his foundation, which Peter’s father was tasked with managing as part of his inheritance. It was later developed into the present day award-winning community. Peter admits some of the controversy that has surfaced over their Cainhoy Plantation plans has been difficult to digest.
“We weren’t allowed to be in the development business as a non-profit,” says Peter. “So we did the (Daniel Island) plan because we cared and we wanted to show our stewardship for the property – and again, I just thought people would find comfort that (Cainhoy) is being planned as a smart community and didn’t really expect the opposition, because I was so proud of Daniel Island.”
Their plans for Cainhoy are a bit different from what they did on Daniel Island, he continues.
“It’s celebrating the outdoors a lot more. Daniel Island was farmed, so it had ditches and fields. This has no ditches. There are little pockets of high land that you put in a road and houses can live on. But they’ll back up to wetlands all over the place. So they’ll have a lot of acreage in their backyard.”
“The first neighborhood that we’ll have on the south side, of the 122 home sites that we have in there, 118 will back up to a natural area, which is pretty unprecedented,” adds Matt. “…There’ll be a trail system that connects you to the neighborhood next door. If you’re a kid on a bike, you’ll be able to ride around your neighborhood proper like you would in an urban setting, but you’ll hopscotch through woods…This is gonna have a much more naturalistic feel to it…This property is too important for it to be just a reboot of Daniel Island.”
For Peter, the idea of developing his beloved Cainhoy Plantation is bittersweet.
“From wilderness to community?” he says, pausing for a few moments to collect his thoughts. “I don’t know how to answer that. It’s a tough one. If the Mark Clark Expressway were never built, we wouldn’t be developing this property. And if the Mayor did not annex it into the city, with the taxes and stuff, we probably wouldn’t have thought about developing it. And then all the infrastructure. Those things catapulted us forward.”
And instead of selling the property off to multiple developers, the Lawson-Johnston family felt it was better to develop it as one entity to ensure it was done responsibly and in a way that honors the Guggenheim family legacy.
“Essentially, all of this is going to become public,” adds Matt as our tour comes to an end. “Every trail will be public. It’s a resource that gets opened up to the entire community.”
For Peter, knowing that thousands of new residents and visitors will one day be able to experience a place that has meant so much to his family over the years is an important consolation as they move forward with development plans.
As the truck motors down the dirt road that will take us out of this natural paradise into the busy world awaiting outside, Peter takes a moment to reflect once again.
“My whole family loves it,” he says, looking out at the passing landscape. “…We’ve had some unbelievable times here.”
And soon, he and his family hope, others will, too.