Threatened: Freedmen's Cabins in Charleston, S.C.
By Eric Wills | Online Only | May 29, 2009
Terri Owens has fond memories of the Charleston, S.C., house where she grew up in the 1950s. Making mud pies. Chopping wood. And making quilts. "We didn't have a lot of food, but I didn't realize we were poor because we had a lot of love," she recalls.
But Owens, who now lives in Maryland, never knew the full story behind the one-story structure until a few years ago, when she happened to read an article in the local newspaper. Owens was surprised to learn that her childhood home was a freedman's cottage, where newly emancipated slaves lived after the Civil War. "It meant a lot to me," she says of the discovery. "It made me want to do more research on my family, how they got there."
It also made her want to do something to help save her childhood home and the three other freedmen's cottages clustered on Jackson Street. Today, the four houses stand vacant, boarded up, and in a state of deterioration, says Katherine Saunders, associate director of preservation at the Historic Charleston Foundation.
Sam Gilchrist, the owner of the cottages, tried to have them demolished in 2002, saying it makes the most economic sense. By his estimation, it would cost about $400,000 to restore the houses, which would generate about $1,200 in monthly rental income. Charleston's Board of Architectural Review denied Gilchrist's request.
Owens hopes to get the four cottages listed in the National Register of Historic Places. She plans to nominate them for inclusion on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. She even wrote a letter and sent pictures to First Lady Michelle Obama, explaining the importance of the cottages. "I think they would be great to use as living history," she says, a hands-on place where tourists could learn to make sweetgrass baskets or learn more about Charleston's history and architecture.
Gilchrist didn't return calls from Preservation. Owens says that in a recent conversation with her, he welcomed any funding sources that could help save the cottages. Says Saunders: "We would love to work with him to make sure they are preserved, especially if there was a way they could be seen by the public."
Built by newly freed slaves, developers, and other people looking for affordable housing after the Civil War, freedmen's cottages in Charleston tended to be two-room structures with a central chimney. "They have real value for their historic significance and as an architectural type," Saunders says. "I feel like people in Charleston are getting more interested in the cottages as a building type."
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