Time travel: A walk through Old Town Bluffton.

Architecture is perhaps the most pervasive, most influential art form, and yet the one we notice least. Subtle adaptations to nature in old Carolina Lowcountry homes are especially susceptible to being overlooked.

Yet the use of natural air and light in our surroundings is something we value again, now that sustainability and energy efficiency are a priority. And a stroll through the Bluffton Historic District can be a refresher course in how the folks who came before us used them wisely. The place to start that stroll is historic Heyward House.

Old Town Bluffton welcome center - Heyward House

Your stroll through Old Town Bluffton begins at Heyward House

Since 1998 the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society has operated Heyward House as a welcome center and museum. It’s hard to beat as a starting point because it exemplifies the Carolina farmhouse style that was brought to the colonies here by planters from the British West Indies.

The long, sloping roof integrates a building-wide porch with the downstairs sitting rooms, connected through large and abundant windows, as a built-in cooling mechanism. We see this solution repeated half a world away, in the British colonial retreats of India, where we later get the term, bungalow. This collection of similar solutions migrated again to America during the boom in middle-class housing of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Museum interior of Heyward House

Furniture, crafts and clothing live on in Heyward House.

So when we take notice here at Heyward House we are in the middle of an architectural story that spans more than three hundred years of living ingenuity across three continents.

Within a few doors of Heyward House, just down Bridge Street, see how these same principles of air and light were applied to larger, two-story homes, at the Fripp House and the Card House. Those second stories were an opportunity to catch more breezes off the May River. Builders took full advantage of it, as you can see.

One of two slave quarters preserved on grounds of Heyward House

Slave quarters were restored on Heyward House grounds.

And this is just the beginning. There are 25 homes, churches and structures on the Bluffton walking tour. Pick up a self-guiding map at Heyward House or at the Chamber’s Welcome Center located just over the bridge at 100 William Hilton PKWY. Better yet phone 843-757-6393 or visit www.heywardhouse.org for a guided walking tour. I can say from experience that there’s nothing like taking this stroll with a long-time Bluffton resident. I’ve kept the stories and passed them on to my children.

Seven Oaks, 1850 historic home in Old Town Bluffton, South Carolina

Seven Oaks stands just a block down Calhoun Street from Heyward House.

The shade of Old Town Bluffton, under the live oaks and Spanish moss, not only calms the light, but also mutes the sound, and indeed the sense of time. You don’t even have to squint your eyes to see back more than 100 years. Bluffton is to the small-town South what Savannah and Charleston are among cities. It is a treasure that took miracles to preserve. It is an experience you never imagined you could still have. Don’t miss it.