Before Hampton Park took shape, this area was home to one of Charleston's most ambitious building projects ever.
The 1901-02 West Indian Exposition transformed hundreds of acres of a former horse race track and plantation into an architectural and cultural spectacle that attracted U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
The exposition was designed to be temporary, and only one of its many buildings survives in anything close to its original form.
And it's unclear how much longer this one can continue to endure without some major help.
The two-story clapboard building with three dormers protruding from its metal gambrel roof began its life as a colonial farm house exhibit and restaurant during the expo, says Kevin Eberle, a Hampton Park Terrace resident who has researched the area.
Eberle notes that many of the expo's buildings were designed and built as fleeting, temporary amusements, but this one is different.
After the expo, as the city began to convert the grounds into Hampton Park, the building — which he notes was painted red at the time — got a new life as a residence for the park's caretaker.
“I'm so interested that this building was framed out as a regular house,” he says. “It wasn't a Potemkin building.”
The building apparently has remained in city ownership for the past century, and judging from an old photo, only the entry portico seems to have changed much. The building most recently served as offices for the city's Recreation Department.
That role came to an end about three years ago with the discovery of an active termite infestation in one room.
The city ripped the floor and portions of a wall out from an office where parents used to sign up their children for baseball and soccer, and the room remains Ground Zero of this building's issues.
But there are others, including uneven floors, cheap replacement windows, code problems and significant cosmetic issues for anyone taking a close look.
Colleen Carducci, the city's property manager, says, “We've been looking at this location as needing lots of work.”
The city is talking with the Charleston Parks Conservancy about its possibly using this building and/or the vacant nearby horse stables, and a memorandum of understanding may emerge soon.
But Jim Martin, director of the Parks Conservancy, says it's too soon to know where this is heading.
“We're very excited about the possibilities,” he says, “but we also know how things can go with the politics of what other people want to see.”
Carducci says the city plans to repaint the roof soon, and there's no evidence of water intrusion that would require more immediate attention.
That said, the building is one of the oldest and most historic in this corner of the city and it deserves attention sooner rather than later.
There's another noteworthy structure next door in need of even more help. The woodframe building atop a pile foundation in the city Parks Department's work yard next door may have been used as a ticket office at White Point Garden and then for some other purpose at the old naval base before being moved to this site, where it sits in an even more neglected state.
The city and surrounding neighborhoods should begin planning work soon not only to save these historic buildings, especially the surviving expo structure — but to come to an agreement about how this area can be preserved and re-imagined to benefit as many as possible.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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