Lois Simms still remembers the sound of voices exulting in worship at the church across the street. In the 1940s, she was a child growing up in the same house on Morris Street where she lives today, and even from the living room, she could hear the a capella offering of hymns most afternoons in the plain wooden chapel.
"We called it the praise house because of what was taking place there in the afternoons," Simms says. Historically speaking, praise churches were non-denominational African-American congregations that started forming in the years after the Civil War, usually in rural areas. Today, the abandoned church building in downtown Dereef Park, where Simms heard music so many decades ago, sits on property that stands to be developed for residential units. Hundreds of residents in the surrounding Radcliffeborough, Elliotborough, and Cannonborough neighborhoods have pushed back against the project for the past six months, signing a petition and lobbying Charleston City Council and the Board of Architectural Review to halt or modify the plans. They won a few battles, but ultimately, the green space at Dereef Park will host a new cluster of homes, and the abandoned church building is slated to be renovated and converted into housing units.
Charleston real estate developer Chris Phillips, a member of the four-member development group Gathering at Morris Square LLC, says the homes could be ready for occupants in about a year and a half. Some of the neighbors who originally stood in opposition to the development plans have resigned themselves to its impending arrival.
"In the past, people were more antagonistic toward the developer, because people had the idea that they could somehow stop the development if they objected to it sufficiently," says Andrew Gould, a design consultant and chairman of the Cannonborough-Elliotborough Neighborhood Association's design committee. But last month, after several meetings with the developer, "the inevitability of it was made more clear."
In July 2011, neighbors complained that the then-developer, Riverside Capital, was not seeking input on the planned construction from the residents or from neighboring institutions, like the historic Cannon Street YMCA. They argued for the preservation of the praise church and the maintenance of a rare downtown green space, and they fretted that the new units would be rented out to rowdy College of Charleston students. Today, some of their concerns have been addressed.
The church, which some of the neighbors had hoped would be converted into a museum or community center, will at least be restored. As it stands today, the church is a shambolic shell of its former self, with its panels showing sign of rot and its white paint marred by graffiti tags. Fire insurance maps in the city's archives indicate that the building was built between 1884 and 1902, and Nick Butler, an archivist at the Charleston County Public Library, has said that it might have actually been initially built as a private residence.
Nearby resident Mary Miller disputes such claims, saying that her own research indicates a certain Mr. White was issued a permit to build a chapel on the exact location of the current building in 1943. That origin date would make the building younger than the 75-year benchmark traditionally used to define historic properties, but Miller says the building should be remembered anyway for its historic place in Charleston's African-American culture.
The park, which is named after Richard Edward Dereef, one of the wealthiest free black men in 19th-century Charleston, had a bad reputation in 2002. That was the year when the city agreed to allow a developer to build on the property, and the neighbors didn't seem to mind one bit. People from the neighborhood remember the park as a hangout for alcoholics and heroin addicts, but it is now seen as a much safer place.
In July 2011, a contingent of residents petitioned City Council to intervene in the development and force the developers to meet with them about their concerns. But since the original developer, the Smith-Morris Company, had reached a memorandum of understanding with the city in 2002, they were too late.
The neighbors did have one recourse, though: The City of Charleston requires all new construction on the peninsula south of Line Street to be approved by the Board of Architectural Review, a volunteer group of residents appointed by the mayor and City Council. When the developer submitted blueprints for conceptual approval at a Jan. 11 BAR meeting, over 30 residents showed up to speak against the project. The board rejected the project, adopting some of the residents' concerns in its explanation.
Tim Keane, the city's director of planning, preservation, and sustainability, recalls that one of the main objections was to a plan that would relocate the church building to a different spot in the park. The BAR also objected to the height and scale of the multi-family units, which were deemed out of proportion with the rest of the neighborhood.
But as it turned out, the BAR had already approved an earlier development plan for the property in 2007, so the Gathering at Morris Square simply adopted the 2007 plan.
Andrew Gould says he and many other residents are happier with the 2007 plans than they were with the 2011 plans. More of the houses are detached, single-family units, and the piece of land that will remain a public park is laid out in a way that doesn't give the false idea that it is a private park (a common complaint about the old park scheme). What's more, representatives from the developer have been meeting with the neighborhood association regularly to get input on one multi-family building that it intends to redesign.
As for the concern that the buildings would become de facto off-campus rental housing for college students, developer Chris Phillips says the real estate market will bear that out.
"The residential mix will likely mimic what is currently in the surrounding houses and the neighborhood," Phillips says. That is to say, there probably will be college students — but there will be families as well.
The trees in Dereef Park are still dead with winter, but they are alive with birdsong one mild January morning as Lois Simms shuffles her way through the parking lot. She pauses about 30 yards from the church building to reflect on the gravity of the moment.
"This is the closest I've come to the church," she says. "I'm making history today." Her family, she explains, was Presbyterian, and she never set foot in the church that shook and hummed with the songs she had heard so clearly across the street. "People have their churches and their own culture," she explains. "I wasn't part of that way of life."
Still, she says, it's part of her neighborhood, and she would like for her neighborhood to remain recognizable. The first phase of the original Smith-Morris development, a 32-unit mix of houses, condominiums, and townhomes, went up across the street in 2008. The main unit's clean lines and red-gray stucco scream modernity next to her classic white Charleston single with its sea-green painted iron fence. She says she would rather not give her opinion on the inevitable second phase of development.
"I'm just a resident," she says, "and it might upset the people who want to make progress, as they say."---