A home foreclosure in Little Rock, Ark., has led to a most unlikely discovery of part of Charleston’s lost architectural heritage.
What at first appeared to be a dozen gravestones in the home’s backyard turned out to be memorial tablets that once lined the lobby of the Charleston Orphan House on Calhoun Street.
Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, announced the find and said the society plans to bring the tablets back to the Holy City, restore them and find them a suitable permanent home.
“That these 12 memorial plaques have survived in Arkansas is astounding,” he said.
The story began in 1956, when the vacant Charleston Orphan House was demolished to clear a site for a new Sears and Roebuck store.
The building had been considered one of the city’s grandest, and many national dignitaries visited it during its heyday.
But by the mid-20th century, society’s view of caring for orphans had changed, and the orphans, like many others, moved to the suburbs. Charleston preservationists still rank the Orphan House among the city’s greatest architectural losses.
Only a few fragments survive: The Charleston Museum has the wooden statue of Charity, which once stood on top of the grand dormitory-style building. The Carolina Youth Development Center, a descendant nonprofit in North Charleston, has the stained glass window that once decorated the chapel.
It wasn’t until the society received a surprise phone call from Little Rock that anyone knew still more of it existed.
A credit union there had foreclosed on a home, and its officials thought the pavers in the backyard were looted gravestones.
They called the Oakland and Fraternal Historical Cemetery, which sent a researcher to take a closer look. She realized they weren’t gravestones, and the names were unfamiliar to Little Rock’s history.
After more research, she made the connection with the Charleston Orphan House and called the Preservation Society to see if it wanted to accept the plaques.
“Of course, we didn’t have to think too hard about that,” Thompson said.
Thompson noted there were more than 12 in the lobby originally, “but we have no idea where the rest are.”
They are inscribed with the names of many prominent Charlestonians, such as Gov. and railroad founder William Aiken, who helped support the home.
The Preservation Society is looking to raise about $1,000 to cover the costs of transporting the stones.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called the find “astounding,” and said the city will help store the tablets upon their return.
Riley said he had no initial thoughts on an appropriate home for them, but added, “The community is very good about coming up with ideas. They’ll be wonderful treasures to have back.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.