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CIRCA School: Tabby

by Jon Valalik (photo by Low Country Africana)

Grab your No. 2 pencils, everyone! It’s time for CIRCA School, where we uncover the fascinating facts behind everyone’s favorite old house details.
I was recently able to visit some friends in my old college town of Charleston, South Carolina, where I was reminded of the beauty of tabby cement construction. Although most tabby construction in the United States was created using techniques developed and perfected in Beaufort, South Carolina, numerous examples exist around Charleston, including Fort Dorchester, which was built in the late 17th century.


A close-up of tabby construction. Photo by lingum11.

Tabby is a form of concrete, most recognizable by the large oyster shells used to add more volume to the tabby paste. The process by which the tabby paste is created requires cooking whole oyster shells in a kiln and then “slaking” them by adding water. The shells then dissolve and mix with the water to create a thick lime paste that dries rock hard.

The Chapel of Ease in South Carolina features tabby construction. Photo by Gavin Fraser.

Tabby construction was very popular in the Southeastern United States in the 1600s and its use, in the traditional sense, continued for centuries. The aesthetic of tabby walls became so popular that even modern surfaces are covered with a similar looking mixture of cement and shells.
Unfortunately these types of walls exist almost exclusively in the Lowcountry, but visitors to these areas should absolutely seek them out. Not only are tabby walls unique in their texture and aesthetic, the connection of tabby construction and the history and people of the south make for an interesting and rare relationship between the architecture that uses it and its people.


Jon grew up in South Carolina and studied Historic Preservation and Community Planning at the College of Charleston. His time in Charleston sowed a deep appreciation for both classical and vernacular styles and the importance of their conservation. He is currently working in Charlotte, North Carolina and hopes to break into the field of architectural preservation soon.


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