‘Rosamond’s Aiken’: McDuffie dedicated life to city’s historic preservation

March 26, 2019

In her youth, Rosamond Durban McDuffie is said to have danced with movie star Fred Astaire. In later years, she took steps to help preserve Aiken’s historic buildings and landmarks.

An Aiken native, McDuffie, 97, died Sunday. She will be remembered for her work with the Historic Aiken Foundation, the Aiken Land Conservancy and the City of Aiken’s Design Review Board. Under her watch, 94 sites selected for their historic or architectural significance were considered part of the Historic Aiken Tour and designated with numbered brass plaques, according to a news story in the Aiken Standard in February 2013.

Dick Dewar, a friend of McDuffie, recounted McDuffie’s telling the story of dancing with Astaire, one of the greatest Hollywood dancers of all time. Astaire spent time in Aiken as part of the Winter Colony in the early 20th century with his first wife Phyllis Potter, whose family had a home on Easy Street.

According to a blog post by Aikenite Jane Page Thompson, local girls would sit on the granite steps of the old Aiken Post Office, which still stands at the southwest corner of Laurens Street and Park Avenue, where Astaire was a regular posting letters and collecting his mail. According to the blog, they were “hoping that they would be the next ones whisked up to dance down the street with America’s most entertaining gentlemen.”

Dewar, a member of Aiken City Council, also remembered how McDuffie campaigned tirelessly for him during his first campaign.

“She actually walked the streets in Houndslake North for me when I first ran for city council in 2007. That was 12 years ago, so she was 85 years old – God, love her,” Dewar said Monday. “She was just an absolutely wonderful person – a community leader to be sure. It’s our loss, quite frankly.”

In February 2013, Jack Wetzel, the president of the Aiken Horse Park Foundation and McDuffie’s friend for more than 30 years, established the Rosamond Durban McDuffie Scholarship Fund at USC Aiken in her honor as a longtime Aiken community leader. The scholarship is awarded to a USCA history major with an interest in historic preservation.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the McDuffie family,” USCA Chancellor Dr. Sandra Jordan said. “Rosamond was a tremendous friend of the university who had an unwavering passion for historic preservation. She inspired others to explore our nation’s culture, history and heritage through the study of the built environment and to do their part to preserve it.

“This year, Emily Ginas received this endowed scholarship. This talented, inquisitive and intelligent young woman is part of Rosamond’s unique legacy. Just last summer, Emily traveled to Italy to research Etruscan art as part of an archeological project.”

When the scholarship was established, Dr. Deidre Martin, who then was USCA’s vice chancellor for university advancement, said, “Mrs. McDuffie has dedicated her life to ensuring the preservation of Aiken’s historic buildings and places. In fact, I’m told that many of her friends often refer to our fair city as ‘Rosamond’s Aiken.’”

In March 2013, McDuffie received the Pickens-Salley Southern Woman of Distinction Award at the Pickens-Salley Symposium on Southern Women for her preservation efforts.

The award is named for Lucy Holcombe Pickens, one of the original residents of the Pickens-Salley House built in Edgefield in the early 19th century and now on USCA’s campus. In early 20th century, Eulalie Salley, an Aiken business woman, a pioneer feminist and the house’s other namesake, moved the house from Edgefield to the top of Kalmia Hill and restored it.

“The award’s namesakes would be proud of Rosamond’s commitment to historical preservation,” Jordan said.

Allen Riddick, the president of the Aiken County Historical Society, said McDuffie was one of the last connections to Old Aiken, when some of America’s wealthiest families came to the city to pursue equestrian and other outdoor sports and escape the cold, northern winters.

“There aren’t many people left who dealt with the Winter Colony people and Aiken before the Savannah River Plant,” said Riddick, who has written a couple of books about Aiken’s history. “If you needed information, she knew everybody.”

McDuffie’s father, George, and her brothers, the late George Durban Jr. and Frampton Wyman Durban, managed many of Aiken’s Winter Colony estates, opening them in the fall and closing them in the spring when the colony’s residents returned north.

McDuffie graduated from the former St. Angela Academy in Aiken. She received her bachelor’s degree from Coker College in Hartsville with majors in English and biology.

After her marriage to Duncan McDuffie, the couple traveled the country with his assignments in the U.S. Air Force, and she worked as a secretary. In 1974, they moved to Aiken, and McDuffie began her work in historic preservation.

Paul Durban, McDuffie’s nephew, said his aunt was “tremendously devoted to Aiken,” in addition to being a “wonderful person, mother and grandmother.”

“She always wanted to make sure that the character of the city was preserved - that Aiken didn’t lose what made it special,” he said. “She didn’t mind ruffling some feathers if, perhaps, that’s what it took and if they deserved to be ruffled. She did just a tremendous amount for Aiken. She was somebody who got things done. That’s a great skill, and we’ll miss her, for sure.”