By international standards, the United States is a very young country. Countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America boast of architectural treasures thousands of years old. Yet aside from some Native American dwellings in New Mexico and several structures in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the oldest surviving architecture in what now constitutes the United States is not even 400 years old.
Historic architecture opens the door to the past. These structures tell us how people lived, how they organized their lives, and with whom they shared public and even private spaces. They convey the values, customs and stories of their time and place.
During the American Revolution, 90 percent of the colonists lived within 100 miles of the coast. Greenville was a frontier of sorts, settled by Europeans long after Charleston.
Eighty years later, the Civil War inflicted significant damage on many Southern cities, leaving a legacy of destruction. During the wrenching economic times of Reconstruction, post-bellum leaders struggled with how to rehabilitate buildings, homes and infrastructure that were casualties of war. Furman Professor Emerita and local historian Judy Bainbridge has argued that Southern communities that were more economically stable during the war built anew after the war, while those communities economically devastated by the war and the loss of institutional slavery lacked the funds to reconstruct. In many parts of Southern society, the old, decaying structures were constant, painful reminders of defeat and poverty, while new buildings connoted the “New South” and were viewed proudly as examples of a postwar renaissance.
One only needs to look at the historic churches and homes on the peninsula in Charleston to understand that the misfortunes the war brought are now our gain; because those buildings were not levelled after the war, today, after loving restoration in many cases, they remain vibrant and majestic, attracting tourist dollars that contribute significantly to the local and state economies.
As was evidenced by the post-bellum attitude that associated wealth with the new, our country, sadly, has not always valued historic preservation. In Charleston in the 1920s, fortunately, preservationist pioneer Susan Pringle Frost led a movement to save and restore colonial-era homes. This culminated with the creation of the nation’s first historic district in Charleston in 1931.
In the early ’60s, inspired by Europe’s deep reverence for historic architecture, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fought against the destruction of the historically significant townhomes on Lafayette Square across from the White House. In the process, she ignited a dialogue about the need for our Congress to pass a law similar to the Monuments Historique in France.
Congress listened, and responded affirmatively. Nearly 50 years ago, on Oct. 15, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Historic Preservation Act, which created the National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmarks and State Historic Preservation Offices.
In our state, the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation (PTHP) seeks to “preserve and protect” historic structures in all areas of the state excluding Charleston, where local organizations maintain a keen watch. In the past 10 years, the PTHP has saved over a dozen threatened properties in our state and has negotiated and assisted in the preservation of dozens more. Just in the past five years in Greenville, the PTHP successfully advocated for the preservation of the Williams Earle home (circa 1850) on Grove Road, taken easement on the former Stradley and Barr Dry Goods Store building (1898) at 14 S. Main St., and most recently spearheaded the successful effort to save the Wilkins House (1878) and add it to the National Register of Historic Places. The Trust is currently working in coordination with the City of Greenville to ensure the Fountain Fox Beattie House (1834), home of the former Greenville Woman’s Club, is saved and protected as it transitions into private hands.
Every threatened property has a unique story of what it endured and how it was saved. The Wilkins House on Augusta Road was jeopardized when developers purchased the site and planned to destroy the home unless it could be moved. Upon hearing the news of impending demolition, local businessman Neil Wilson expressed interest in purchasing the home. He and the Trust made a deal; if the Trust could raise the money to move the home, he would create a historical easement that would restore the home and would open it to the public several times per year. Our community rallied and hundreds of Greenvillians raised $300,000 to move the home to a new lot on Mills Avenue.
Faced with the rapidly approaching deadlines of developers, this undertaking was intense and exhilarating. In an effort to proactively prepare for the next inevitable opportunity to save one of our community’s historic treasures, Trust director Mike Bedenbaugh is creating a revolving fund for Greenville County named in honor of Greenville residents and former board members of the Trust, Bill and Woo Thomason, who died in 2013.
The fund is designed to purchase threatened properties in the county and hold them until the sale or move of the structure to someone committed to restoring it responsibly and placing it in an historical easement. At the time of the sale, the money taken from the fund will be replaced. The trust has already established revolving funds for Daufuskie Island and Colleton County and will establish funds for Spartanburg and the ten-county area of the PeeDee in 2017.
With the proliferation and dominance of “big box” national stores and chain restaurants, American communities face increasing homogenization. Towns and cities across the country are challenged to maintain a sense of distinctiveness. As we move into the future, a community’s historic assets will become more critical to local tourist and economic development efforts to highlight a sense of what makes their community unique. As the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, William Murtagh, stated, “At its best, historic preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”
So while our historic structures in “the frontier” may not be as old as Europe’s or even as Charleston’s, they are uniquely ours. They provide a unique view into the essence of what and how Greenville was in the past. These treasured structures are part of our identity, our DNA, past and present, and thus are precious to us.
Question: What are the oldest structures in Greenville County?
The oldest standing structures in Greenville are the George Salmon House (circa 1798, possibly as early as 1784) and the Joseph McCullough House (1812).
For more information on the Bill and Woo Thomason Endangered Places Fund for Greenville County, visit palmettotrust.org/Greenville or write to: Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, c/o The Bill and Woo Thomason Endangered Places Fund of Greenville; PO Box 506; Prosperity, SC 29127.