United Order of Tents could lose home
The cream and green building with the rusted iron gate looms large over Cannon Street, a hodgepodge of architectural styles that has been home to a secretive sisterhood for more than a half-century.
The United Order of Tents has weathered civil war, segregation and strife since its birth in the late 1800s. But now, the ravages of time and city building codes threaten to leave the group homeless.
The Tents are facing a monster repair bill to shore up their crumbling building, which has developed severe structural issues. The repair costs could run in the neighborhood of $700,000, and the Tents just don’t have that kind that kind of cash on hand.
Preservation groups are rallying to help the group, run entirely by black women, many of whom are elderly. But in the meantime, Charleston officials have hauled the group into the city’s Livability Court, and a judge has given the Tents until early next month to board up the place.
At the moment, they don’t even have the money do to that, though the Preservation Society of Charleston has offered to pick up the tab for securing the building.
The society also recently listed the Tents building, at 73 Cannon St., on its new “Seven to Save” list highlighting the Lowcountry’s most pressing preservation issues.
Margaret Thomas, chairwoman of the United Order of Tents board of trustees, said members suspect the city’s crackdown is an attempted land-grab by officials interested in seeing the property put to other use. She vowed that the Tents would find a way to persevere.
“We know what this is about,” she said. “They’ve been trying to get that property from us for years. We won’t sell it, so they found another way to sneak in and try to take it from us. But we’re dealing with it. We’re not giving up.”
City officials said they don’t want to see the Tents go anywhere; they simply need to deal with a deteriorating structure that has become a public safety hazard.
Tim Keane, the city’s director of planning, preservation and sustainability, said fire officials flagged issues with the building during a February visit. They spotted large masonry cracks and other problems in the building and deemed it unsafe for firefighters to enter if a blaze occurred, he said.
“It’s an important building and we would definitely like for them to keep it, and ultimately, be able to restore it,” Keane said. “Our main interest is just getting it to the point where it’s not causing a public safety problem.”
A proud history
The United Order of Tents, which has chapters throughout the East Coast, got its start in the 1800s as an Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing the South.
The group took its name from the tents the fugitives used as shelter during their escapes. Former slave Annetta Lane founded the first chapter in 1867 in Norfolk, Va.
The Tents came to Charleston in 1913 and formally incorporated here nine years later. The women met in various locations around the city before purchasing their current headquarters — the hulking, three-story building on Cannon Street — in the 1950s.
The group’s rituals and customs are shared only among the group, but the mission has changed little since its earliest days. Adhering to a Christian code, it cares for the sick and elderly, helps the poor and needy, instructs the young and makes sure the dead receive a proper burial.
For years Tent members have attended countless funerals, hosted annual Thanksgiving services and raised a pile of money for orphanages, cancer research, a home for the elderly and other causes.
“I remember how we would sit with sick people, get them ready for bed and make sure they had clean linens,” recalled Helen T. McKune, president of the local district. “It was really a nice experience.”
The group has more than 500 members in the tri-county area, but its ranks are graying and it’s a continuing challenge to raise funds and recruit new blood, said Ann Blandin of Charleston, a 68-year-old retired social worker who joined the Tents in 1977.
“We try to do wholesome things, and some of the young people, they’re not interested in that,” she said.
The Tents’ 5,700-square-foot building also is showing signs of age. It began life as a single house in 1856, and someone later tacked on a bulky concrete addition that is now pulling away from the original structure.
Large cracks and a growing gap between the old house and its unreinforced add-on testify to the settling and strain the building has experienced.
The Tents renovated the building in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo and rented out the third floor and attic to make extra money. College students trashed the upper floors, and other parts of the building slid into disrepair.
“We’re all getting older, and we just haven’t been able to keep it up,” Blandin said. “No one lives there, and a building will just go down without a human presence.”
Lately, the largest human presence has been intruders breaking in to steal copper pipes or mementos. Portions of the ceiling in the first-floor meeting room and kitchen have caved in from water damage, and a good number of floor tiles have buckled and come up.
A similar scene greets visitors to the second floor, with dust and debris scattered about. Window blinds rustled in the breeze that blew through broken and jagged glass in the panes.
But as McKune slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor on a recent morning, steadying herself with a cane, a different view greeted her through the prism of memory.
She recalled how the older women sat in a group in one section of the room, ready to impart wisdom and instructions to the younger members, who clustered near the dusty old piano. There, each generation learned the ways of the Tents.
“Those were good old days,” she said with a smile as she moved past rows of weathered, metal folding chairs.
Finding a solution
Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society, said the building remains a significant example of a late antebellum house, and he believes it’s worth saving. It’s one of the largest buildings on one of the largest lots in Charleston’s Cannonborough neighborhood.
“But it’s a very big project,” he said. “It could be upwards of $700,000 to get that building safe and ready for occupancy.”
Thompson said the city has valid issues with the building, but he thinks officials could have taken a different approach than hauling the Tents into Livability Court.
“We need to make a distinction between willful demolition by neglect and situations where people are in legitimate need,” he said. “This is clearly a group that has been in need of help.”
Thomas, the trustees’ chairwoman, said the city has not lifted a finger to help. “You would think the city would be interested in trying to help a group like our’s, but they’re not.”
Keane said the city has been trying to work with the group for months. After repeated continuances in the case and several requests to have the building secured, a municipal judge ordered the Tents to board up the property by June 12. “We just can’t have it like that,” Keane said.
The Preservation Society has stepped forward and plans to hire a contractor to secure the building and prevent further weather damage from occurring.
The society and the Historic Charleston Foundation are batting around ideas for raising cash and arriving at a plan for the long-term preservation of the building, Thompson said.
In the meantime, the 11 local Tent groups that make up the Charleston district are meeting in area churches and libraries until a permanent solution is found.
Some members have wondered in recent years if the Tents would be better off selling their place, which is in a gentrifying area, and using the money to buy a smaller, single-story building elsewhere. Developers have certainly been sniffing around for years at the prospect.
Blandin, Thomas and others, however, think it would be a travesty to the group’s history and tradition to walk away from its longtime home, which the Tents paid off in 2001.
There are too many memories; too much a sense of home.?“We don’t want to move,” Blandin said. “It sounds sentimental, But it’s just something about never forgetting where you come from.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.