Influential Charleston Women

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A circa 1910 Alco seven passenger touring car

The women who saved Charleston

Charleston is one city that owes much to its past, a history that was originally protected by some of our finest women. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’d like to take a moment to recognize the efforts of Charleston’s original preservationists--some you may have heard about, and others whose efforts have largely gone unrecognized. Each of them contributed in their own way to help make Charleston such a wonderful place to live.

Susan Pringle Frost

In 1909 Susan Pringle Frost began her crusade for the preservation of Charleston’s historic buildings by borrowing money to purchase two small properties on the east end of Tradd Street, one of the city's oldest streets. In time, she would become Charleston’s first female realtor and the inspiration for preservationists who followed her footsteps. Ms. Frost rehabilitated a number of properties around Tradd Street, East Bay, and St. Michael’s Alley from the slum-state that had befallen them by the early part of the 20th century. In 1920, Miss Frost founded the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, later to be called the Preservation Society of Charleston, the oldest community-based historic preservation organization in America. According to her biography, Preserving Charleston’s Past, Shaping Its Future by Sidney R. Bland, “she was an early advocate of zoning to preserve old iron and woodwork, and she championed Charleston's zoning ordinance of 1931, which created the nation's first historic district. Frost regularly swamped Charleston newspaper editors with letters about preservation goals and needs, and became celebrated for her public service and quaint eccentricities. Her historic preservation initiatives contributed substantially to the movement that transformed the streets of Charleston and made it a national tourist destination.”

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Rainbow Row, East Bay Street, Charleston, SC

Dorothy Haskall Porcher Legge

In the 1920s, Ms. Frost bought six buildings on the section of East Bay Street now known as Rainbow Row, but she lacked the money to restore them immediately. In 1931, Dorothy Haskell Porcher Legge purchased a section of these homes numbering 99 through 101 East Bay and began to renovate them; they were the first homes of the 13 dwellings that make up Rainbow Row to be restored. She chose to paint these houses pink based on a colonial Caribbean color scheme. Other and future owners followed suit, creating the "rainbow" of pastel colors present today. By 1945, most of the houses had been restored. Mrs. Legge was recognized for her groundbreaking restoration work on the house with an award from the Preservation Society of Charleston in 1992; detailed plans of the house were produced for the Historic American Buildings Survey and can be viewed here.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith

One of Charleston’s most renowned artists, Alice R. Huger Smith, developed two completely different styles: pencil drawings for architectural publications and impressionist watercolors for sale. A number of books about the Lowcountry and life in Charleston were published at the beginning of the 20th century, but the architecture of the city had barely been considered. In 1917, Miss Smith and her father, D. E. Huger Smith published The Dwelling Houses of Charleston, one of the first studies of architecture of an American city. Miss Smith went on to publish a number of books, both with and without her father’s collaboration, and their work had a great impact on the appreciation of the architecture of Charleston. It is unlikely that early preservation efforts would have existed without the architectural renderings of Miss Smith.

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15 Meeting Street. Alice R. Huger Smith and D. E. Huger Smith, The Dwelling Houses of Charleston, 1917. via http:// halseymap.com

Frances Ravenel Smythe Edmunds

Frances Ravenel Smythe Edmunds achieved national recognition as an advocate for historic preservation. In 1947, she was the founding director of the Historic Charleston Foundation and served until her retirement in 1985. Under Mrs. Edmunds’ leadership, the foundation played a major role in the preservation of Charleston’s unique architecture and character. President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and she was a trustee of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation at Monticello. In 1971, the National Trust for Historic Preservation presented Mrs. Edmunds its highest honor, the Louise DuPont Crowninshield Award.

Mary Vardrine McBee

In 1909, Mary Vardrine McBee bought the James Nicholson House at 172 Rutledge Avenue from the Witte daughters to found an independent college preparatory school for girls, Ashley Hall. During her 40 year tenure as Headmistress of the school, Miss McBee grew the campus to include an indoor swimming pool, the "Old Gym" (Burges auditorium), kitchen and dining room, the Headmistress House, and faculty apartments. According to a January, 1935 issue of the Evening Post, Miss McBee bought real estate on the south side of Mason’s Court (now Talon Court) as well as on the west side of Smith Street. An undated “Do You Know Your Charleston” article from the Post and Courier entitled “Former Dives Transformed into Modern and Attractive Homes, Improving Entire Neighborhood of Ashley Hall” gives a glimpse into what Miss McBee had actually accomplished and photographs from the book Ashley Hall by Ileana Strauch are confirmation of her achievements.

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Top: Site for future lower school, early 1900s Bottom: Preparing for a photo, 1910

Miss McBee acquired 11 homes in total with that property acquisition in 1935. She was the first woman--and one of the first citizens--of Charleston to take advantage of the New Deal Federal Housing Administration loans. The loans were meant to be used to improve living quarters and provide work for those that needed it during those difficult times. The article states that Miss McBee had already restored 3 of the 4 houses on Smith Street and rearranged other buildings to make better use of them: “Of the other 7 houses, all of which occupied the area back of the 3 restored houses fronting Smith Street, 2 have been torn down and the other 5 converted to the use of the girl’s school...The 5 houses were moved around to afford an enlarged playing field for the girls...to be used for a dramatic club, a clubhouse, an art studio, classrooms for the first 4 grades, and a storage house.”

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Charleston, Lower School, Women, Charleston Women, Historic, Downtown

Top: Lower school campus, 1930s Bottom: converted 131 Smith Street, 1930s

The three $2,000 FHA-backed loans were certainly put to good use in renovating the former slum dwellings into residential units and school houses. While some of the original buildings were relocated in the 1930s, Sanborn Fire maps indicate that others were moved when construction of Pardue Hall commenced in 1965. The six homes on Talon Court are often said to have been built for the faculty at Ashley Hall, but this is not likely the case since the houses all predate the existence of the school (they were all built in the 1890s). It is likely, though, that some of the houses were moved from their original sites by Ashley Hall.

Lois will be listing for sale a lovely home at 5 Talon Court in the near future. If you are interested in learning more about the history of this lovely home or want to schedule a showing, please give her a call at 843.270.2797 or email to lois@loislaneproperties.com.

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