How many times have you been walking or driving around Charleston and asked yourself, “What used to be there?” Have you ever found yourself explaining to someone from off that the Greyhound station was on Society Street, or that we used to have a shaker joint (aka gentleman’s club) across from Marion Square--and then draw a complete head-slapping blank when you can’t remember what used to be where the Harley-Davidson Shop is now on S. Market? (Okay, Swenson’s is an easy one...but you get the point.)
We recently found ourselves scratching our heads about the lands over behind the Charleston Museum called Wraggborough Square, where Lois currently has a home listed for sale. All we could remember being there before the current residences was a large grassy field, but our curiosity got the best of us and we did a little research. Anybody know?
The Mazyck-Wraggborough neighborhood is bounded by Mary Street to the North, Washington Street to the East, Calhoun Street to the South and King Street to the West, forming a large square in the middle of the Peninsula previously referred to as The Neck. Largely developed in the early 1800s by John Wragg, this area housed many of Charleston’s first prominent families in a bucolic setting outside city limits. Over time, economic conditions and population migrations resulted in great changes to the neighborhood, although an anecdote from the October 1, 1919 News and Courier confirmed that remnants of rural life remained in the area over a century later:
“Quite an amusing spectacle took place on Chapel Street yesterday afternoon, when a young heifer which had strayed from the stock yards refused to be led and had to be hoisted into the police patrol and given a ride home.
The police received a communication that a cow was raising a disturbance on Chapel Street. Several officers arrived on the scene. The cow, caring little for the dignity of the law, immediately made a rush in their direction and bumped one of the policemen rather severely.
Several provost guards who were in the vicinity rushed to the assistance of the officers, but the cow still resisted arrest vigorously and would not be roped. In the meantime about 300 spectators had gathered and offered valuable suggestions--from a distance.
An attempt to appease the heifer was made by offering her a drink of water and while she was engaged in drinking it, several persons slipped up and tied her feet together and hoisted her into the patrol wagon with the aid of a lead pipe, used as a lever, and she rode away in state.”
As Charleston and the area above Calhoun Street became more densely populated at the transition into the 20th century, the need for affordable housing was frequently met with the construction of small wood cottages. These “Charleston Cottages” were erected between the 1870s and 1930s. Typically only 500-1,200 square feet, they are single-storied with a side piazza and a gabled roof facing the street. Since the 1990s, these cottages have been commonly referred to as Freedman’s Cottages, indicating that they were built to house former slaves, but this is a misnomer. According to a well-researched book, “The Charleston ‘Freedman’s Cottage': An Architectural Tradition, these homes were built primarily as rental units for working class people of all races.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson General Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. (1909). Negro tenements, Charleston, S.C.
By the late 1960s, the east side of the peninsula between Calhoun and Mary Streets was predominantly occupied by African American renters with mostly absentee landlords, and the area architecture suffered from gross neglect. According to Historic Preservation for a Living City: Historic Charleston Foundation, 1957-1997 by Robert R. Weyeneth, the Historic Charleston Foundation focused on the rehabilitation of this area in the 1970s much as it had earlier in the Ansonborough neighborhood--revitalization through historic preservation--but this time, the goal included home ownership rather than displacement. The organization undertook various approaches to meet this goal, one of which was the Judith-Chapel Street initiative. This project was a departure for a preservation group, as it made plans to raze--rather than restore--a tract of severely deteriorated Charleston Cottages, and build 27 architecturally-compatible townhomes for middle-income families. This effort to stabilize and revitalize a neighborhood without displacing its residents was, however, foiled by prevailing economic forces. The dilapidated houses were cleared in 1977 and the acquired 1.8 acre parcel of land between Judith and Chapel Streets remained a grassy field for the next ten years or so.
Going with the flow
Private investor Morton Needle acquired the tract of land and architectural plans from the Foundation, honoring their wishes “to reflect the quality and form of Charleston architecture in a contemporary manner” and began construction in the late 1980s. According to a November 11, 1987 article in the Evening Post, the remains of two bodies were discovered by workers near the tract’s border with Alexander Street. We’re sure this was a surprise (boo!) although an 1852 map clearly shows a burial ground next to the marsh area of the inlet present at the time (see Halsey Map, above). Six of the originally-planned townhouses were built in 1989, and a dozen single houses followed in the late 1990s. The homes are situated around a lovely park.