A nascent preservation movement could score a key victory this year in Spartanburg, a historic Upstate textile mill town that is undergoing a revitalization.
The property in question is Cleveland Hall, a former alumni house for nearby Converse College, which the current owner proposed bulldozing and replacing with a one-acre "pocket neighborhood" in January.
The early-20th-century house and the surrounding Converse College Historic District are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but in the absence of local preservation ordinances, a listing does not necessarily protect a building from demolition.
After weeks of uncertainty, an outpouring of concern from neighbors and longtime residents could save the old house from the wrecking ball.
John Barrett has lived in the house across Main Street from Cleveland Hall for more than 20 years and can see its wide front porch and gabled roof from his own front yard. When he heard that current owner John Montgomery was seeking to rezone the property for a new development, he helped rally like-minded residents and reached out to Montgomery hoping to change his mind.
He feels they are making headway.
"The Montgomery family had a very large textile mill here in Spartanburg County. He wants the best for his community, and it's not an us versus them. We’re all on the same team here," Barrett said.
Barrett and other members of the loosely organized Facebook group Spartanburg Save Cleveland Hall have attended public meetings en masse and circulated an online petition that garnered more than 6,000 signatures in opposition to the demolition.
He and other residents even offered to buy the property themselves and convert it to public use. Instead, Barrett said, he has heard from Montgomery that another potential buyer is interested in renovating the house as a private residence.
"The key thing is the house is saved," Barrett said.
The former alumni house had been vacant for several years when Converse College sold it to 589 East Main Street LLC, a company that lists Montgomery as its agent, in September 2018 for $5,000, according to county records. Montgomery could not be reached for comment.
The lively public debate over the future of Montgomery Hall comes during a period of revitalization in the historic core of Spartanburg. The nearby downtown area, centered around Main and Pine streets, has seen a number of major home renovations as well as new businesses opening in recent years. The nonprofit Hub City Writers Project opened a bookstore in a former Masonic lodge there in 2010 and has since become the nexus of a growing Upstate literary scene.
Barrett said now is a good time for the city to start taking its own history seriously.
"Just like in Charleston before more stringent ordinances, things are getting torn down," Barrett said.
Spartanburg preservationists lost a previous battle in 2017 to save Bon Haven, an 1884 mansion, also built by the Cleveland family, that had fallen into disrepair after years of abandonment.
Caroline Wilson was born and raised in Spartanburg, and she got involved with the effort to save Bon Haven while working as a consultant for the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation.
"It was a beautiful house. It was on the National Register," Wilson said. "The Clevelands were very essential to the founding of Spartanburg, and there was no reason why it should have been torn down. It’s still very upsetting."
Wilson said she remains optimistic about the future of Cleveland Hall. Unlike Bon Haven, the building is well-known and highly visible. She sees a parallel to Spartanburg's Montgomery Building, an iconic art deco tower from the 1920s, which is currently being renovated to include apartments and ground-floor pizza parlor and coffee shop.
Another win for preservation could mark a turning point.
"Cleveland, Converse and Montgomery were the big families in town and used to have these palatial houses all along Pine Street and Main Street ... That whole stretch used to be these," Wilson said.