What’s Charleston’s oldest suburb, would you say? Windermere? The Crescent? Riverland Terrace? Well, it’s true that Charleston’s initial expansion off-peninsula in the mid-1920s was directly related to accessibility due to the building of bridges. And certainly neighborhoods like Hampton Park Terrace and Wagener Terrace were perfectly accommodated by the trolley line, which also made it easier to travel back and forth in to town. But while most of America’s flight to suburbia started in the mid 1940s, Charlestonians were two hundred years ahead of the game.
"You Won What"?
By the mid-1700s, Charleston had become a pretty wealthy trade center and relief from the hustle and bustle within the city walls became desirable.Colonel William Rhett, a well-to-do landowner, was one of the first to build outside the city walls so that he could spread-out a little. He built a small plantation named Rhettsbury with formal gardens and a three-storied double mansion. When building commenced in 1712 (at 54 Hasell Street, still standing), Col. Rhett, an adventuresome sort drawn to partying and politicking, set out to chase some pirates.
18th century gambling in the Hazard Room by Thomas Rowlandson
Of course, Charleston had its fair number of marauding pirates and--the success of Col. Rhett notwithstanding--the Britannic Majesty sent a three-ship anti-piracy flotilla to reinforce protection of the trade. Thus, in 1724, Captain George Anson (27 years old) and his vessels HMS Scarborough, Squirrel, and Centurion, rolled in to Charleston. Anson proved to be a very able and popular officer, and was stationed here for 12 years. He was also fond of the drink, and of the ladies, and was passionate about gambling. It was in one of his frequent card sessions with the King’s Collector for Charles Town, Thomas Gadsden, that he is said to have won a 60 acre tract of land--one that reached from the Cooper River to Broad (now King) Street, and extending from Col. Rhett’s plantation above the market to what is now Calhoun Street. Now, whether Anson was given the deed in payment of a debt, won the deed outright, or won enough money to purchase the tract seems irrelevant, don’t you think? Clearly, the man was a shark.
Edmund Petrie, Ichnography of Charleston, SC. London, Phoenix Fire Co, 1788. American Memory, LOC.
Notice the names of Anson’s original streets: Squirrel, Scarborough, Quince; also, Trott and Federal.
A Suburb Takes Shape
In the mid-1730s, Anson interlaced his estates with streets named after himself and his vessels, and in 1746 he had plans drawn up for a 25-lot borough to be laid out in the western portion of his lands and began selling them off. In 1758, the eastern portion was sold to Thomas Gadsden’s son, Christopher Gadsden, who proceeded to fill in the marsh lands and build the little village of Middlesex. (Yes, this is the Revolutionary leader Christopher Gadsden of “Don’t Tread On Me” fame.) Ansonborough developed rapidly and the South Carolina Society acquired a number of lots (hence the name Society Street); by 1768, all of the land was said to be filled with fine homes. These homes were built as proper ‘town’ houses with large gardens in which wealthy plantation owners could escape malaria season, and where wealthy ship owners could pass time while keeping an eye on the Cooper River Wharves. Skilled tradesmen, artisans, and shopkeepers moved into the quiet suburban neighborhood and as it prospered it gradually blended into the rest of the city. Ansonborough, with its grand homes and flowered lawns, was a peaceful, perfect suburb.
18th Century Firefighters: The Bucket Brigade
Fire Forces First Facelift
According to the Preservation Society of Charleston’s Halsey Map, the 1830s was Charleston's Decade of Fire, with 15 large, damaging fires in less than ten years. The worst, by far, was the fire of 1838, which leveled "at least one-fourth of the centre of our beautiful and flourishing city," nearly 150 acres at the heart of the commercial district. More than 500 properties burned, at least 1100 buildings altogether - dwellings, tenements, boarding houses, stores, churches, workshops, kitchens, stables and sheds.
The fire began on the evening of April 27, in a shed behind Mrs. Babson's house at the corner of King and Beresford (now Fulton) Streets. It raged through the night, ending at the Cooper River. According to Charleston is Burning! Two Centuries of Fire and Flames (Daniel J. Crooks, Jr., 2009), several persons died in the fire or while laying charges of gunpowder to blow gaps in it. Another man “it is believed died from mere fright or perhaps from apoplexy.”
Following the fire, City Council passed a series of ordinances limiting wood construction, and new regulations for managing the duties of Fire Department and the numerous volunteer fire companies. On June 1, 1838, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified An Act for Rebuilding the City of Charleston "to rebuild that portion of the city of Charleston now lying in ruins."A fund backed by state-issued bonds provided construction loans on the "condition, that the money loaned shall … be expended in the erection of brick or stone buildings."
While most buildings erected during this time were built of brick, affordable frame buildings began to go up again in the burned district, and regulations declaring them "public nuisances" to be demolished or fire-proofed, were never enforced. Go figure.
Residence on Hasell Street, Charleston, S.C. (1902) Jackson, William Henry, 1843-1942, photographer. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. LOC Prints and Photographs Division. 55 Hasell St., 1902. One of the dependency condos is currently listed for sale with Lois Lane.
Wash and Repeat
Rebuilding the area commenced immediately, according to Marie Fenner’s 1969 article in The Sandlapper. Most larger lots were subdivided, and the Greek Revival style of architecture was most commonly used during the reconstruction. These proud and stately homes were whole estates unto themselves, utilizing many outbuildings within the grounds of their high walls. Entire courtyards were paved with handmade brick and the walls contained a great variety of shrubs and trees. Life was again pleasant in Ansonborough until the Civil War and the Great Earthquake of 1886. New prosperity came to the area during WWI, but it did not endure.
During the Great Depression, many of the grand homes in Ansonborough were reduced by economic necessity to rooming houses and tenements. Years and years passed, and eventually one of the finest residential areas of ante-bellum Charleston became a slum. A slum that needed saving.
During the 1950s, slum clearance and urban renewal became a part of city agendas across the country. Charleston integrated this national goal with its own objective to preserve its architectural heritage. The Historic Charleston Foundation (est. 1947) acquired seven Ansonborough properties in 1959 and thus began its famous Ansonborough Rehabilitation Project. Preservationists, artists, visionaries, and anyone with the means and the imagination bought and restored over 100 ante-bellum homes in Ansonborough and returned the gracious neighborhood to its former glory. The first of its kind, the Project has been used studied by preservationists and urban planners worldwide. To learn more about it, consider reading Historic Preservation for a Living City by Robert R. Weyeneth.
Dawn and John-Paul Simmons married in her restored Ansonborough home at 56 Society St. in 1969.
Another Charleston First
One of the first to buy a home under the Ansonborough Rehabilitation Project was Gordon Langley Hall, an English author of social biographies who had moved to New York and befriended monied actresses and artists. As an eccentric, Gordon was reportedly accepted into Charleston’s Southern gentry--even if at arm’s length. His welcome was revoked, however, after he underwent one of the first sex-reassignment surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1968. Now Dawn Langley Hall, the English transplant further scandalized still-segregated Charleston by falling in love with a young black mechanic, John-Paul Simmons. They married in her restored Ansonborough home at 56 Society Street (the subsequent home, by the way, of our own beloved author Josephine Humphries). Naturally, there’s much more to the story (isn’t there always?) and if you’re interested, please do pick up a copy of Peninsula of Lies (2004) by author of Slaves in the Family and The Sweet Hell Inside, Edward Ball. It’s an utterly fascinating read!
Ansonborough Interest Piqued?
The double tenements at 22-24 Wentworth Street were rehabilitated to a single family dwelling. HCF, CCPL.