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  • Karen Terhune Duncan

Old & Elegant

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

When I was growing up my brothers and I had the enormous privilege of travel, which my parents adored. They took us on some wonderful vacations including Northern Europe, Spain and Morocco. Often we’d be touring an ancient abbey or a historic site and sometimes (let’s face it, we were kids!) we’d begin to roll our eyes. Our tours were accompanied by my parents unending descriptions which included the often “family famous” statement by my mother that something was “Old and elegant,” which has become somewhat of a family moniker for decades. Last week one of my brothers was at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and jokingly texted me it was still “Old and elegant” which made me laugh and miss my mother.

I was elated when we discovered that the terrace of our new Savannah home was finished in historic tabby. It’s in excellent condition and large enough for lounging, sipping cocktails and gazing at our lagoon. Our terrace is decorated with brick.

(Left: Wormsloe Historic Site was once the colonial estate of carpenter Noble Jones, who came to Georgia with James Oglethorpe in 1733. This former plantation is the site of the oldest standing structure in Savannah – the ruins of Jones’ tabby house, which was built in 1745.)

Tabby stucco is a type of concrete: a mixture of water, sand, ash and broken oyster shells. In historic Savannah one can see it used on driveways, walkways, walls and even on the outside of some buildings like a plaster, but more interesting looking. It’s extremely durable as oyster shells are rock hard and can withstand hardship of all types of weather – sand, pounding rain and wind. And while “shell stucco” is used in many coastal areas, true Tabby is made with oyster shells and its origins are pure Low Country.

It’s likely that 16th-century Spanish explorers first brought tabby to the northeastern coast of Florida. North African Moors brought a predecessor form of tabby to Spain when they invaded: a form of tabby is used in Morocco today and some tabby structures survive in Spain, though in both instances the aggregate is granite, not oyster shells. Tapia is Spanish for "mud wall" and Arabic tabbi means a mixture of mortar and lime or African tabi. Then English colonists developed their own process independently of the Spanish. The mortar used to chink the earliest cabins in this area was a mixture of mud and Spanish moss. Savannah’s (and Georgia’s) founding father James Oglethorpe introduced “Oglethorpe tabby” into Georgia in the 18th century after seeing the Spanish forts in northern Florida. It’s a rare find today that can still be seen in some historic areas of the Carolina’s but it’s colonist roots are Georgian.

There are wonderful historic examples all over Savannah. Wormsloe Historic Plantation has several original structures built in tabby. We’ve ordered, in true Savannahian style, rocking chairs for this terrace. My mother is smiling. It’s our own “old and elegant.”

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