BEHRE COLUMN: A new revolving fund for old buildings

This modest, dilapidated house at 227 Nassau St. is being purchased by the Preservation Society of Charleston, which plans to fix it, resell it and use the proceeds to work on a similar house nearby. Dec. 7, 2012 Robert Behre/staff Buy this photo

It sounds almost like a joke when Preservation Society Director Evan Thompson says it, but he's serious.

While the house at 227 Nassau St. needs a new roof , a new piazza, a new heating and air system, all new wiring and plumbing, a new kitchen and bathroom and some new foundation piers, it's in pretty good shape.

“Other than that, it's move-in ready,” he says with a smile. “We don't have falling-down walls.”

Thompson is talking about the vacant house that the society plans to buy to start a new revolving fund.

It's also the first property that the membership-based preservation group has bought in about three decades, and it could mark an important first step toward saving modest but historically valuable Charleston architecture that few others are trying to save.

The house — which was built around 1885 — is called a Freedman's Cottage, but Thompson prefers the term “Charleston Cottage” since the form has few historical links to freedmen.

The house at 227 Nassau was built by Henry Small, the 19th century equivalent of a truck driver. His family owned it until 1955.

Thompson says the house still has its original floors, mantel and chimneys. Its doesn't have any unsightly additions, and at only $30,000, the price is right.

The society will partner with the Charleston Housing Authority, which has pledged to offer up to $250,000 in loans at a low interest rate to help buy and renovate such property for sale to first-time homebuyers.

The Society plans to restore the two-bedroom house, sell it, reimburse the authority and use proceeds to buy a similar house and start all over again.

That's how a revolving fund works.

Of course, the society's success ultimately won't be measured by its own construction work but by how many others in the neighborhood follow suit.

“This is not about flipping houses and developing a new stream of revenue for the Preservation Society,” Thompson says. “It's about fixing a neighborhood.”

The nation's first preservation revolving fund began in Charleston more than a half-century ago.

The Historic Charleston Foundation scored a big success in Ansonborough and ultimately transformed what many had considered a slum to one of Charleston's most desirable (and priciest) neighborhoods.

Of course, that late 20th century transformation triggered a fresh set of concerns about gentrification and declining diversity, but Thompson says that should not be as big an issue here.

The society plans to focus on similar, vernacular buildings that might be lost without quick help.

“Our focus is on vacant buildings,” he says. “We want to be sensitive to the existing social fabric but recognize a vacant building is a negative influence on people living in this neighborhood.”

In fact, the foundation is working with Charleston Habitat for Humanity to help other residents remain in their homes in the same East Side neighborhood.

Housing Authority executive director Don Cameron says the society's new project not only will increase opportunities for first-time home buyers but also will address demolition by neglect —a longstanding problem in struggling neighborhoods.

“That will be the challenge: trying to market them,” he says. “Who wants to buy the first one?”

Thompson is optimistic a buyer will emerge and the society won't wait another 30 years to close on its next property.

“It's a new direction for us, but it goes back to the origins of the society — coming together to save buildings,” he says.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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