Originally created 11/30/00

Landmark site will go on market



NORTH AUGUSTA - U.S. Treasury officials are putting the historic Seven Gables mansion on the auction block after acquiring it as forfeited property from a convicted drug dealer who used it to launder marijuana profits.

Built in 1903 as a hunting lodge for wealthy patrons of the Hampton Terrace Hotel, which burned in 1917, the North Augusta landmark on Georgia Avenue was last used as a restaurant.

In the late '80s, the restaurant was known as the Buffalo Room and was the target of an FBI investigation because of its practice of barring blacks from the property.

The Tudor-Revival style house, named for its distinctive gables, has stood vacant since owner Randy Salter pleaded guilty in a Texas federal court to conspiring to distribute bulk quantities of marijuana and to money laundering. He is serving a 10-year sentence in an undisclosed federal prison.

Under a plea agreement, Mr. Salter gave up Seven Gables, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, along with several vehicles, a $4,000 Rolex watch, two pairs of snow skis and $11,000 cash. The government agreed not to seize his home on Martinez Road.

Government agents found that Mr. Salter used Seven Gables to conceal illegal drug profits, which he channeled as loans to the restaurant through two corporations he had formed, said Jack Harris, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations special agent in charge of operations in Corpus Christi.

The two-story house and an adjacent motel will be sold at auction Dec. 15 at noon by EG&G Technical Services, a private company that handles sales of property seized by the federal government. The company is holding open houses from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, this weekend and next, for prospective buyers who must deposit $25,000 in certified funds if they plan to bid.

North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones said Wednesday that city officials hope the auction will attract a buyer who respects Seven Gables' style, history and importance to the town and who "will do something with it that benefits the community."

Possible uses, he said, are as a private home; a restaurant, for which it remains fully equipped; a banquet and meeting hall; or a bed-and-breakfast.

EG&G representative Britney Bartlett declined to speculate Wednesday on the value of Seven Gables, with its antique furnishings, dark wood paneling, carved mantels and balconies. "The ultimate bids will decide what it is worth," she said. "We don't want to influence the bids."

Part of the property's value is its rich history, and its buyer might be eligible for federal tax incentives to restore it, she said.

As the Hampton Terrace Hunting Lodge, it welcomed among its guests some of America's wealthiest and most famous - among them Marshall Field, Harvey Firestone, John D. Rockefeller and President William H. Taft. Under the name Palmetto Lodge, the mansion was a private winter home to some of North Augusta's most distinguished residents, including the John Herberts of New York. Author Edison Marshall wrote his novel The Vikings while living there.

The property began to acquire a more lurid image under the ownership of the Salter family in more recent years. Mr. Salter's father, Bruce, triggered an FBI investigation and lawsuit in 1989 when he refused to serve black customers at the restaurant, then known as the Buffalo Room - a reference to the horned head of a black buffalo that hangs in the paneled great room, one of several stuffed heads of big game on the walls.

Closed during that litigation, Seven Gables reopened in the 1990s under ownership of Randy Salter and his brother, James.

The restaurant did not come into play in Randy Salter's earlier drug convictions during Operation Jackpot, which targeted narcotics kingpins in South Carolina, because he didn't own it then, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marvin Caughman said.

In 1987, Mr. Salter was convicted in federal court in Charleston of possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute it, and he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. The same year, he was convicted in Brunswick County, N.C., of conspiring to traffic more than 10 pounds of marijuana and got a six-year state sentence that was to run concurrently with his federal time.

In 1990, he was convicted of tax evasion in federal court in Columbia. He got probation.

The last time Mr. Salter was convicted, agents identified numerous properties either bought with drug profits or used to conceal them, Mr. Caughman said. The law allows the properties to be seized and sold to help pay for law enforcement and provide restitution to crime victims.

"The message we intend to send is that we're going to take the profit out of crime," Mr. Caughman said.

His office was one of several involved in investigating the drug ring that Mr. Salters led, culminating in his arrest in Texas in 1998. Other agencies included the North Augusta Department of Public Safety, the McCormick Violent Crime Task Force, and investigative units in the Carolinas and Texas.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.