Charleston isn’t the only place with so-called “sweet shops,” tiny buildings scattered throughout downtown neighborhoods, but it has more than most other cities.
Also, the term “sweet shops” is a bit of a misnomer, since they were built as doctors’ offices, print shops, barber shops, shoe shine parlors, grocery stores and even homes.
These are just two revelations based on new research led by the Preservation Society of Charleston.
Leeann Dickerson, a historic preservation student at the University of Georgia, recently interned with the society and wrote an in-depth report on these shops.
Last year, the society placed the city’s sweet shops on its annual Seven to Save list, and Dickerson’s study is an effort to help secure their future. Before preserving something, it’s important to get a clear sense of what it is — and isn’t.
These buildings may not seem endangered today, as new eateries such as Taco Spot on Coming Street, Sugar Bakeshop on Cannon Street and Mia Pomodori’s pizza place on Rutledge Avenue are breathing new life into them.
But Dickerson found reason for concern. Charleston has 85 of these shops still standing, but 213 others have been lost.
The term “sweet shop” applies to one-story, rectangular buildings with a narrow facade (usually 15 feet or less) along the street and with no more than 450 square feet inside.
Most were built between the 1860s and the 1960s, about the same timeframe as Charleston Cottages. (These cottages are single-story homes commonly called Freedmen’s Cottages, but just like most sweet shops have no special ties to sweets, most Freedmen’s Cottages have no special ties to freedmen).
The greatest concentration of sweet shops is found in the central peninsula, in neighborhoods such as Cannonborough, Elliottborough, the Eastside, Westside and North Central.
The shops can be considered a poor cousin to Charleston’s grander commercial architectural form: the corner store. Interestingly, no one knows exactly how many of these survive or have been lost. The best accounting was a 1994 city survey that found 82 corner stores still standing between Calhoun Street and the Crosstown Expressway, but there are surely many more than that.
One of the oldest surviving sweet shops stands at 52 Meeting St. Built before the Civil War, it housed a doctor’s office and may be most fondly remembered as home to Miriam B. Wilson’s Colonial Belle Goodies. That shop sold confectioneries based on original slave recipes until Wilson’s death in 1959. It’s now a home.
Dickerson identifies five types of shops: mid-block shops, three-bay shops, gable front shops, corner shops and attached shops.
She plans to continue studying the shops for her master’s thesis, and she notes similar buildings can be found in Dayton, Ohio; Bucks County, Pa.; and Falmouth, Jamaica. Perhaps the next greatest concentration outside Charleston may be in Miami’s historically black suburb of Overton.
The exact origin of the building type is unknown, but Dickerson says it may stem from the building cultures of African-Americans and immigrants who owned them.
The buildings are a unique part of Charleston’s vernacular architecture, and a mostly overlooked part, too.
No Charleston sweet shop has received one of the society’s Carolopolis awards and very few appear in the pages of Jonathan Poston’s “The Buildings of Charleston.”
Evan Thompson, the Preservation Society’s director, says he hopes the study leads to new appreciation of, and protection for, the remaining shops.
He is concerned that the city’s zoning may not make it easy to use these shops commercially, even though the late urban expert Jane Jacobs wrote persuasively of the need for a city to have places that can foster small businesses. What better than a small shop?
And Thompson notes that a downtown property owner today might not be able to build a new version of a sweet shop under the city’s zoning, which can require a minimum of two stories in height.
History shows the shops are vulnerable to progress: Most of those lost stood in the area covered today by Interstate 26, the College of Charleston’s campus and the Gaillard Auditorium.
If there’s a poster child for an endangered shop, it might be the vacant building at 571/2 Carolina St.
This shop had a lively and varied life. It was a grocery in its early years, then became the Great A and P Tea Store, Austin’s Restaurant and the Bunny Hop Sweet Shop in the 1970s before becoming a grocery again until it closed in the mid-1990s.
“Interesting enough,” Dickerson says, “it’s the only known reference to a ‘Charleston Sweet Shop’ actually being used as a sweet shop.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.