Plan emerges to revitalize Hampton Park’s fringe for weddings, wine, other uses

This rendering shows how Hampton Park’s cafe might look under a Charleston Parks Conservancy plan to invigorate some of the park’s underused spaces.

Revitalizing the vacant cafe, horse stables and deteriorating superintendent’s house in Hampton Park could give people reason to visit — and even get married there — while providing income to freshen up all of Charleston’s parks.

At least that’s the hope of the Charleston Parks Conservancy, which plans to lease those properties at minimal cost from the city.

If City Council approves the lease next month, the nonprofit then would seek proposals in July from companies or other groups interested in renovating the properties, bringing the cafe back to life, and creating a new, affordable event space.

Conservancy executive director Harry Lesesne said the cost of any renovations and other aspects of any sublease still are to be determined, but he said one goal is to provide a new income stream to the conservancy, which spends 70 percent of its budget upgrading and maintaining the city’s parks.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s a good deal of enthusiasm, and we think there will be a lot of interest,” he said. “If we can’t make it work, then the city gets it back. The public is not losing anything on the deal if the numbers just won’t work.”

Lesesne and Josh Martin of Turnberry Consulting met with residents in four neighborhoods surrounding the park Wednesday and will make their case to City Council next week.

Hampton Park is the largest of the peninsula’s parks, and its history is arguably the richest, said Kevin Eberle, who lives nearby and wrote a book on its storied past.

Its 63 acres have served as a plantation, a horse-racing track, a Confederate prison, a world exposition, a zoo and the vast, passive park there today.

“I say that it’s the most historic park in the city. It certainly has the most complicated and interesting history with the most interlocking stories of any park in Charleston,” he said.

Eberle said he is encouraged by the planned changes. “When you end up with buildings like the superintendent’s house and the stables that are vacant for years and years on end, that doesn’t help anybody,” he said.

The superintendent’s house — former home of the city’s Recreation Department — is particularly historic, seeing as it is the sole survivor of the city’s 1901-02 West Indian Exposition.

Most of the exposition’s other buildings were built only for temporary use and were broken apart and sold for scrap, and while the superintendent’s house survives, it lacks a good foundation and could be expensive to repair, city parks director Jerry Ebeling said.

The goals of the plan are to promote public recreation, improve the connectivity within the park, create more indoor space and emphasize the park’s history. Lesesne said the rules as far as noise and hours would not change, and parking for the event space could be handled by a surface lot that the city’s Parks Department now uses for mulch and trucks.

The park’s small cafe was built in the early 1980s near the park’s man-made pond, and the idea was that the city would find a vendor to operate it. However, Ebeling said repeated attempts have not been successful.

Lesesne said the new cafe would be allowed to sell beer and wine, subject to local permitting, and there could be a new patio area for customers closer to the pond. But any such changes — as well as changes to the horse stables and superintendent’s house — would be subject to the city’s design review processes.

He also said he would like to see any renovation of the house and stables be functional, flexible and not “gold-plated,” so they can be affordable for more people to rent.

Much of this property today feels off limits, blocked by some fencing or gates. Under the plan, those would go away.

“It will feel like the rest of the park,” Lesesne said. “That’s the intent.”

The conservancy, founded eight years ago with a $10 million gift from businesswoman Darla Moore, has worked to renovate 25 city parks. Its most ambitious project so far, refurbishing Colonial Lake, is currently under way at the other end of Rutledge and Ashley avenues from Hampton Park.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.