Recently, the city's Board of Architectural Review denied a permit for the demolition of 40 Poinsett Street. Built around 1900, the two-story Charleston single house had been owned by the Pinckney family since at least 1918 when Julius Pinckney, a house carpenter, and his wife Rosalie were living there. The house is worth saving. And so is the rest of the street, a short walk from the library and the Food Lion on upper, upper King Street.
There are many streets along the eastern side of King Street and the western side of Meeting Street from the Crosstown north to Mt. Pleasant Street that suffer from disinvestment and neglect. Most of these streets dead-end into the I-26/railroad corridor, which on early maps is identified as Russell Street. Some of the streets used to traverse the train tracks, but most of them are chopped in two, with the uncauterized ends left as gangrenous wounds in the city.
These streets are lined with the modest, vernacular Charleston cottages and single houses, built from about 1890 through the 1930s, that were principally home to working-class African Americans who toiled in the phosphate industry, at the Navy Yard, in the bagging mill on King Street, the cigar factory on East Bay Street, or in the various transportation businesses that kept Charleston moving.
Poinsett Street exemplifies the fate of these wounded roads suffering from decades of disinvestment and neglect. First laid out in 1854, three years after the death of Joel R. Poinsett (the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and former secretary of war for whom the street was named), very little development occurred on Poinsett Street in the early years. And so it was with the rest of Charleston's upper peninsula, which remained relatively agricultural well into the 1800s. In the 1880s, small farms began to be broken up into residential subdivisions, and the city spread its street grid north, in part because of the belief that a canal linking the Cooper and Ashley Rivers would bisect the upper peninsula (It never happened, although sometimes the Crosstown appears to serve the purpose).
Poinsett Street runs east from King Street toward I-26, and 15 lots on its eastern edge came to be controlled by the Union Realty and Investment Company. The houses along this stretch of Poinsett are simple Charleston cottages, devoid of much architectural detail, but rich in everyday history. The Pinckney house at 40 Poinsett Street stands out as the only two-story dwelling. These houses huddle close together, with the Green Chapel Baptist Church at their center.
Charleston's history is, of course, deeper and more complicated than what is told on a carriage tour, and the historic built environment stretches far beyond the Battery in territories not well marked on tourist maps. The simpler architecture of working-class Charleston is, too, historic, even if it can't be commodified, packaged, and sold. These Poinsett Street houses are over a century old. Individually, they may not seem like much to look at, but as a streetscape, as a collection of buildings, they retain a strong aesthetic character and important evidence of the contribution their residents have made to the city.
Poinsett Street is a ghost town of boarded up houses, with just a handful of households giving life to the street. The area reflects the more general trends toward abandonment of the peninsula's marginalized neighborhoods in the 20th century, the lack of care and maintenance of historic wooden structures of the more modest sort found on Poinsett Street, and the undesirability of living along a transportation corridor. But what if the new rail trail emerges? Poinsett Street will be able to access it directly, and it will be within a few minutes' pedal of Calhoun Street. And if light rail ever comes to Charleston, will its residents petition for a rail stop, as its citizens similarly petitioned city council in 1911 for a light pole?
One has to believe in the possibility of places like Poinsett Street and houses like the Julius Pinckney House, which was almost torn down. But it's not enough to stay a demolition. It requires investment and imagination to reinvigorate historic neighborhoods. The future of Charleston lies in such places. Here's a guide to what you'll find at the "dead end" of Poinsett Street, all built circa 1900.
A handful of the homes on the street have been demolished or replaced:
27, 28, 30 Poinsett Street. Two Charleston cottages have been demolished and were replaced in the 1970s with modest houses at 28 and 30; the cottage at 27 has also been demolished but is now a vacant lot.
34 Poinsett St. A small house that stood here was demolished some years ago to provide a side yard for the church. It had been home to Edward Moultrie, who owned the property, lived here alone, and worked for the phosphate mill and later at a creosote plant.
History Attic: Poinsett Street
Evan R. Thompson is the executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston.