Many families have made the Lowcountry their home over the years, but few family trees are as deeply rooted in area history as the Kirk family, who originally owned Bluffton’s Rose Hill Plantation in the 1800s. Today, Eleanore Leavitt De Sole — a descendant of Dr. James Kirk, who died in 1858 — relishes her connection to the area and to the past.
The Kirk family was one of Bluffton’s founding families and included 16 children. Daughter Caroline inherited Rose Hill Plantation from her parents in 1850, but the construction of the mansion was interrupted by the Civil War, so the family — including Caroline’s brother and Eleanore’s ancestor, James Kirk, lived in a house on Bluffton’s May River. James and his wife, Gabriella, had several children, including a daughter named Mary Elizabeth but known as Lilla — Eleanore’s great-grandmother. The name Gabriella lives on within the family.
“Over the past several generations, we’ve had five Gabriellas in the family — and a first cousin of mine just named her child Gabriella,” Eleanore said. “Louisa Wilson of Palmetto Bluff was also a relative by marriage. So there are lots of tentacles. We are all over the place."
Despite her early ties to Bluffton, Eleanore didn’t visit the Lowcountry until 1961, when her parents, Bill and Eleanore Leavitt, traveled from their home in suburban Washington, D.C., to the Lowcountry to “introduce” the family to the South Carolina relatives. This first visit included a trip to see her greatgrandmother’s home on Kirk’s Bluff.
But the Kirks’ reach extended beyond Bluffton. Eleanore’s great-aunt, Allyne Martin, who was born in 1889, was the first woman to sell large tracts of land on Hilton Head, Daufuskie, and Pinckney islands and throughout Beaufort. Her most noted sale was 20,000 acres to New Yorkers Thorne and Loomis. Part of that land today is home to the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn. It was Allyne who sold Rose Hill Plantation to the Sturgeon family in 1946, and Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser was said to have credited her with helping to boost interest in Hilton Head. Allyne became quite a personality around Bluffton.
“With the erosion of Kirk's Bluff, my great-aunt Allyne built herself a Carolina cottage on the property, which did not have an indoor toilet.” Eleanore said. “When the cottage got condemned, she lived in the Holiday Inn on South Forest Beach. She brought her shotgun, which, quite understandably, intimidated the hotel staff."
Allyne died in 1989, just a few weeks before her 100th birthday. She was interred in locally, just like the rest of her family before her; Kirk family graves can be found in the newly restored Zion Cemetery on Hilton Head and Bluffton Cemetery on May River Road.
But Allyne wasn’t the only Kirk descendant with ties to Sea Pines. In 1962, Eleanore’s father bought oceanfront property from Charles Fraser and built immediately. Her husband of 42 years, Domenico, proposed to her on the island in 1974, and they were married that same year. The couple has two daughters, Laura and Eleanore, known as Rickie.
Her eldest daughter's husband studied historic preservation, so when they were planning their 2013 wedding, Rose Hill seemed the perfect spot thanks to the connection. More than 150 years after their ancestors first owned the land, the Kirk family descendants celebrated the wedding in what some might call the family home.
But Eleanore and her family had been returning to the Lowcountry long before that blessed event.
“We spent many vacations here, then bought a home in Sea Pines in 1986 with the plan to retire here in 2005," Eleanore said. She and her husband began construction on a new house in 2004 and moved in, as planned, in 2005. Domenico, a native of Italy, is the former CEO of the Gucci Group; in 2005, he co-founded and today continues to serve as chairman of Tom Ford International and is the CEO of Sotheby’s. The couple’s daughters work in the fashion and beauty industries — like father, like daughters, it seems. After moving to the Lowcountry, Eleanore immersed herself in her new community, especially the arts.
“I have a love affair with the visual arts and the value of a good education — two cornerstones to opportunity," she said.
She served a decade on Savannah College of Art and Design's Board of Visitors, and also is heavily involved with the Aspen Museum, an epicenter for international contemporary art, and the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado.
The couple's personal art collection made headlines when in 2016, they sued over what turned out to be a fraudulent Mark Rothko work purchased in 2004 for $8.3 million from the now-closed Knoedler & Co. art gallery in New York City. The lawsuit — and allegations that the gallery had sold other fake paintings — rocked the art world. The De Soles settled out of court in February 2016.
Art isn’t Eleanore’s only passion. She is a member of the Lowcountry’s Spirit of Friendship, a group of 50 women who practice the act of collective giving.
“Every year, the group focuses its attention on various organizations including the Boys & Girls Club, Family Promise through All Saints Church, and Volunteers In Medicine,” she said. “What makes it successful is the camaraderie of women's organizations — not just writing a check. We visit the organizations to see how they work. We enjoy each other's company and work towards the same objective. I feel it's important to support community projects.”
And, of course, she makes time to enjoy the beauty of the Lowcountry — the same beauty her ancestors enjoyed.
“We love the water and are avid sailors — I think that is what has always attracted us to Hilton Head Island,” she said. “When Domenico and I walk in the door, we are happy to be home.
”The History of Rose Hill Plantation
Rose Hill Plantation was a wedding gift to Caroline Kirk from her father, James Brown Kirk, in the 1850s. Construction of the Gothic Revival plantation house began in 1858. The Kirk family was forced to flee the home during the Civil War and Union troops occupied the home, as evidenced by the many relics left behind and a Kirk family mirror with a scratched message from one of the soldiers.
Caroline died in May 1864, but the Kirk family continued to own Rose Hill into the early 20th century. In 1946, another couple, John and Betsy Gould Sturgeon, bought Rose Hill Plantation from a Kirk family relative and restored the home. In 1980, the Rose Hill Plantation Development Company, owned by the Welton family, purchased the property to create a golfing and equestrian community. Rose Hill Mansion was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Soon after, there was a fire, leaving the house in a state of partial ruin. In 1996, the mansion was purchased by the Middleton White Foundation and restored as a private home. Today, it is open to the public for tours by appointment.
For more information, go to www.rosehillmansion.com or call 843-757-6046.