The Preservation Society of Charleston bought a vacant house on the Eastside Wednesday, paying $30,000 for a real fixer-upper.
With the purchase of the one-story, circa-1885 cottage at 227 Nassau Street, the Society is launching the Charleston Vernacular Revolving Fund, which will allow the organization to buy, renovate, and sell neglected historic buildings. The money to purchase the house came from private donations, and the renovations will be completed with the help of up to $250,000 in revolving loans from the Charleston Housing Authority, to be repaid and loaned out again when the Society sells the house. According to a press release, an African American named Henry L. Small purchased the land in 1882, when he was listed in the Charleston City Directories as a "scavenger" and "cartman." By 1910, Small was working as a truck driver for I.M. Pearlstine & Sons, a carriage, buggy, and grocery business on East Bay Street (the company later began distributing beer after the repeal of Prohibition and exists today as Pearlstine Distributors).
The house was featured in a City Paper story in September about the ways in which the City of Charleston regulates the 300-plus vacant houses that exist downtown. At the time, the owner had bought the house with the intention of fixing it up and selling it as low- to moderate-income housing, but when he took a closer look, he realized the repairs would be more extensive than he first envisioned. The city's Livability Department contacted him after he pulled some boards off and gave him 15 days to fix the gaps in the walls, which city regulations require to be closed up.
The three-bedroom, 800-square-foot house is still not much to look at, with a facade more peeled than painted and a front door that opens onto a nonexistent side porch. The Society is referring to it as the Henry Small Cottage, and when restoration is finished, it will be sold to a first-time homebuyer, with the proceeds from the sale going toward future purchases of historic buildings.
Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society, says the idea of restoring working-class "vernacular" buildings is new for the organization. "Vernacular buildings are more simple buildings that aren't necessarily architect-designed but have a form that's rooted in the local architecture and the local environment," Thompson says. The Society classifies the house as a Charleston Cottage, a category of building that looks like a one-story version of the more famous (and often better-preserved) Charleston Single. According to the press release, Charleston Cottages have erroneously been called "freedman's cottages," but most were actually built between 1870 and 1930 for middle-class residents. Hundreds have been lost, some as victims of demolition by neglect, and the Preservation Society listed some of the cottages on its "Seven to Save" list of urgent preservation projects in 2011. As the middle and upper parts of the peninsula become more attractive to investors, Thompson says, "We need to make sure that these simpler houses are brought along with it so that we have an appropriate mix of both the old and the new."
According to Thompson, a woman owned the house at 227 Nassau from 1955 until she died in 2009 at age 100. She was buried at the Lewis Christian Union Cemetery, a once-overgrown African-American cemetery that was first on the Society's Seven to Save list for 2012.
Donations to the Preservation Society can be made at preservationsociety.org or via mail at P.O. Box 521, Charleston, SC 29402.