It is the wealthy, the privileged and the politically connected who make the pages of books dealing with Charleton history.
But it is people like Henry L. Small who worked as a “scavenger” and “cartman” — and in 1910 as a truck driver for I.M. Pearlstine & Sons on East Bay Street — who made the city work.
It is the stately mansions and imposing public buildings that people think of when they hear “Charleston architecture.”
But without the smaller, more uncelebrated houses built by people like Henry Small and other Charlestonians of all ethnicities, the architectural picture is only partially painted.
The Preservation Society of Charleston’s new Charleston Vernacular Revolving Fund is important to preserving and telling the whole story of the city’s architectural and cultural past. Further, it is important to the present in that the buildings it rehabilitates will be purchased as residences by first-time homebuyers.
The Historic Charleston Foundation has a similar program, Neighborhood Impact Initiative, which recently completed the restoration of a freedman’s cottage on Romney Street.
The Charleston Vernacular’s first project is an 800-square-foot cottage that Henry Small built in about 1885 on Nassau Street. Not a “freedman’s cottage,” as the design is often mislabeled, it is an example of houses built between 1870 and 1930 for working-class people like Henry Small.
It has been purchased with private contributions, and will be restored through a revolving loan established with the Charleston Housing Authority. The eventual homebuyer will have to agree to a protective easement.
Over the years, hundreds of houses like the Henry Small house have been lost. Not only does the program begin to save historic buildings, it makes it less likely they will fall prey to neglect or to changes that are contrary to the buildings’ architectural and cultural significance.
Further, Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society, said the project can demonstrate to people how they can preserve and use buildings “and keep the character and form, with the right compromise that balances enough historical details with the right amenities.”
For example, plans for the Nassau Street property include rebuilding a porch, repairing the chimney but also adding a bedroom at the back of the house.
And the society is also hoping that the cottage design will be recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. Being included can mean tax incentives for people who restore them.
By taking steps to rehabilitate and preserve Charleston cottages, the Charleston Vernacular program is making a commitment to the authenticity of Charleston’s story, as told in its buildings — great and small.