It’s the kind of small, outdated building that would probably be demolished without much thought in another city.
But the Engine House at northeast corner of The William Enston Home sits in Charleston, and it recently has emerged from a $22,244 renovation.
That’s a lot of money for what’s essentially going to be a storage shed, but it also helps set in motion the renovation of one of the campus’ main landmarks, Memorial Hall.
While the property at 900 King St. is well north of Charleston’s typical tourist trails, The William Enston Home is one of the city’s great late-19th-century landmarks.
The 12.1 acres are dominated by a series of Romanesque Revival cottages designed, as the sign on the stone entrance gate says, “to make old age comfortable.”
Back then, “old age” was considered to be 45 years and up.
But the homes also were designed to be self-sufficient, a new and healthier kind of living. Part of that meant a then-state-of-the-art water and sewer system in a city that would not form a municipal water company until a few decades later.
While the Charleston Housing Authority bought the complex two decades ago to preserve its traditional affordable housing, it also is working to preserve the rest of the story.
That story includes two of the more obscure but interesting buildings on campus: its Water Tower and Engine House.
The Water Tower stored potable water that was drawn from a well with help from a 16-foot-tall windmill, which has been gone for years. There also was an engine in the Engine House to pump water during periods of no wind.
Don Cameron, president of the authority, notes how unique and progressive the homes were for their time.
“It had indoor plumbing when it opened in the 1880s,” he says. “Not a lot of Charleston had indoor plumbing in the 1880s.”
Each of the cottages also had its own cisterns and collected rainwater to flush toilets and for other nondrinking use.
Marty Thomas, the authority’s capital fund manager, oversaw the major 1995 renovation and the Engine House work, which included roof repair, window replacement, new wooden doors and repointing the masonry for stability.
Its completion will allow the authority to use it to store equipment now kept inside Memorial Hall, the last piece in need of renovation.
The hall was built as a tribute to Enston, whose 1860 bequest made everything possible. But it has stood largely unused for decades.
Cameron says the authority would like to renovate it for public meeting space on the first and second floors.
Cameron says a recent report from Glenn Keyes Architects provides a solid overview of the building’s strengths and weaknesses.
The good news is the hall is structurally sound, and Keyes estimates it needs almost $1 million in work on its exterior and another $667,000 inside, including installation of an elevator that would make the second floor accessible.
“Those numbers are not scary,” Cameron says. “It is a big number, but we were talking in the arena of $1.5 million a few years ago. We’ve got a lot more knowledge than we had and the number didn’t skyrocket.”
Cameron says the authority soon will approach the city as well as the William Enston Trust, which no longer has legal ties to the property but helps 19 families live there, about how to pay for the work that would put the hall back in shape.
And that would be good news. The William Enston Home was built in four phases (1880s, 1920s, 1932 and 2007), so it’s natural that this one-of-a-kind property would be restored over as many phases.
“More than the sum of its parts, it is the overall scheme of the Enston Home that is of interest and value,” a Historical American Building Survey report concludes. “A late-19th-century interpretation of a medieval English village, combined with then-current notions of healthful suburban living, the Enston Home is an early and possibly unique example of privately funded, nondenominational American philanthropic housing.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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