SULLIVAN’S ISLAND — Someone says “Sullivan’s Island” and probably what comes to mind first is the beach. And expensive homes.
The island today is an oasis for the wealthy, many of whom have second homes here, and it’s a prime beach destination for Lowcountry residents and visitors. But it’s also home to locals who remember when the houses were modest cottages, when horses kept the overgrowth at bay, when the military was active on the island, when the movie theater and dance hall packed ’em in.
In the early 1900s, the year-round residents numbered in the hundreds. Back then, there were few trees and no fancy landscaping, only yards. The rules were lax and the carpentry creative. The island was full of rickety “beach houses,” not 8,000-square-foot mansions. Residents caught fish in the marsh creeks and can now recall the trolley that ran along the spine of the island.
In 1945, the Ben Sawyer Bridge opened, shifting the island's main entry point from the southern end to the middle. People began to build more houses, but they were still constrained by 75-year leases awarded by the federal government, which reserved the right to reclaim the property, a practice that ended in 1953.
Fort Moultrie was a large base of command for the defense of Charleston until the late-1940s. It dominated the island. Today, only a fraction of the former installation survives; it has been subsumed by residential development. For decades after the military left, Sullivan’s Island was a remote and scrappy place.
Then came Hugo.
On Sept. 21, 1989, the Category 4 hurricane overcame Charleston and, during the course of its sojourn, destroyed much of the Lowcountry. Sullivan’s Island was hit hard. Many of its homes, especially those at the north end, were damaged, demolished or swept off their foundations.
Nothing would be the same. Federal Emergency Management Agency funding and insurance money helped homeowners recover, but the influx of cash also helped create a new Sullivan’s Island, one that featured bigger homes and many non-natives. In every respect, Sullivan’s Island is a before-and-after story.
Some on the island, such as Pat Votova, Hal Coste and Adele Deas Tobin, are advocating for temperance and preservation. They say if more isn’t done to save the old structures, Sullivan’s Island will soon lose the last of its historic allure.
“Sadly, after Hugo, Sullivan’s Island took an entirely different turn,” Tobin said. “People who had lived here, their houses were ruined and they left. ... We didn’t do enough to save the historic houses. We should have gotten that together a little more. ... When things get torn down and disappear, the people who move in don’t have any idea of how much history is here.”
The majority of residents on the island came after Hugo, Tobin noted. Many don’t live here full-time. That’s OK, she said. But it makes it more urgent to strike that balance between preservation and change.
Everywhere you look, on nearly every block, someone is building something or renovating. It’s a contractor’s paradise. The historic wood-framed homes — with their big porches and sloping metal roofs, or their gingerbread facades — are increasingly eclipsed by new construction.
“It is a beach community, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put things in place to keep things restored, keep history in place,” she said.
Setting the rules
F.C. "Bunky" Wichmann Jr. lives in a late-1920s home purchased by his wife’s family for $21,000 in 1969. Since then, it’s been enlarged and renovated. The windows were constructed in a way to withstand the shock of cannon fire.
Wichmann is a member of the town’s Design and Review Board. He said the board considers most demolition or renovation requests and abides by a strict set of rules that can prompt homeowners to spend a lot of money.
“Most of the people doing this, they’re not skimping,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of Formica.”
The rules first started to get set in place at the turn of this century, according to Joe Henderson, the island’s planning and zoning director. Before that, homeowners could practically do whatever they wanted.
“Between 2000 and 2005, Sullivan’s Island went through some pretty dramatic changes,” he said. In 2001, vacation rentals were prohibited (though 49 of them were grandfathered into the resolution). That was a game-changer, Henderson said.
Then, in 2003-04, the town conducted a survey of historic buildings that led to the formation of federal and local historic districts as well as the Design and Review Board. This process was not without controversy: Some objected to the inclusion or exclusion of certain properties. Nevertheless, it helped codify a review process and provide strict guidelines for contractors and homeowners, Henderson said.
Today, Sullivan’s Island has about 1,200 parcels of land that can be developed, and about 900 houses. Airbnb rentals are prohibited, as are more traditional bed-and-breakfast rentals. Height restrictions are in place. FEMA’s flood guidelines determine how high off the ground new and renovated homes must be.
Many of the homes are within the historic districts and therefore subject to review for most proposed changes. (Those not designated historic can be altered or demolished without interference from the town.)
“We keep very close tabs on all of the projects, especially the historic projects that we permit,” Henderson said. "It’s a deliberate process, and it’s one we feel works. The folks that live on Sullivan’s Island are very engaged in this process of review, and they are not afraid to attend the meetings and give input on these projects, and everything we hear is open to public.”
Later this year, the town will release a revised comprehensive plan and launch an online mapping tool that will enable the public to search properties, determine their status and view their historic survey cards, Henderson said.
Losing the charm
Hal Coste and his wife, Karen, live in an old beach house on Station 19 that began its life as a tiny one-room shack with a low ceiling and has become an 1,800-square-foot elevated home with plenty of head room and several additions. Some of the original wood planking and roof beams are visible. Hal Coste maintains a large work and office space beneath the house where he keeps piles of old photographs. He is an amateur archivist and passionate defender of island heritage who’s involved with the nonprofit Battery Gadsden Cultural Center, housed in an old military fortification.
“There are a lot of lost properties,” he mused as he showed photographs that dated to the early 1900s, when the beach was closer in. He hopes these images and the history they record eventually can be part of a public exhibit.
Karen Coste said some newcomers don’t share the same “mindset” with more established residents.
“They see the old houses, decide they’re ugly and think they should be torn down,” she said. “The new architecture is massive, insensitive and cold.”
The island lacks racial diversity (it’s nearly all white) and, increasingly, lacks economic diversity, she said. In 1886, the population of Moultrieville (the name of the town back then) was 324 whites and 260 blacks, for a total of 584, though another 2,000-3,000 converged there in the summers. Since the end of World War II, gentrification has pushed out African-American and other lower-income residents.
“It used to be a poor man’s island,” Karen Coste said. “It’s a shame what they’re building (now). ... They’ve taken away the charm that yanked them in to begin with. Growth is inevitable, but controlled growth has been ignored. There are too many ordinances that favor the rich man.”
Respecting the old
Some on Sullivan’s Island are navigating successfully that gray space between old and new. They won’t replace historic structures with new construction; rather, they rearrange the old buildings, add to them, modernize them, improve them.
Eddie Fava, an architect who lives on the island and specializes in repurposing old homes, has worked on about a dozen of them here, preserving the exteriors and much of the historic charm while upgrading and reorganizing the interiors. His motto probably should be “You can have your cake and eat it, too.”
His own home on Myrtle Avenue is a perfect example. About 16 years ago he acquired a decrepit two-room house built in the 1920s, then saved another just like it located nearby on Goldbug Avenue. (The owners of that property wanted to tear the tiny house down to make way for new construction and a gracious garden, so they agreed to sell it to Fava for $1 on the condition that he remove it within 30 days).
Fava positioned the second small house at the back end of his lot, then renovated them both and connected them with a light-filled kitchen and living space overlooking a pool and manicured lawn. From either Myrtle Avenue or Goldbug Avenue, you glimpse something historic yet modernized. From inside the property, you behold the symmetry and style of modern architecture. Many of the old details are preserved, including the rafter tails, visible in one of the bathrooms.
Fava said his clients appreciate the old gifts of the island and want their own homes to convey a sense of history.
“The new folks learn quickly, especially if they’re working with a trusted professional,” he said.
'Sense of place'
Allan Perry Hazel and his wife, Judy, live in one of the island’s oldest surviving homes, located at the marsh on Station 23. It’s elevated (of course), has a huge screened-in porch and a large backyard with a view of the causeway. As late as the 1970s, horses grazed on the shrubbery, the Hazels said.
Allan Hazel’s grandfather, Allan Perry Jones, build the house in the first decade of the 1900s, partly to escape the bustle of the island’s south end. The shed he slept in during the construction project is still there. What’s new is the modest beehive the Hazels are managing.
The house hasn’t changed since it was built, and the Hazels love it that way. It adds to the island’s “sense of place,” they said. Not long ago, a film crew used it as a set.
A golf-cart ride through their neighborhood reveals other old homes that have survived many decades, as well as many more that have been renovated or build anew. The Hazels have received inquiries from people interested in buying the property, but they said they have no intention to sell. Or to alter anything. They like Sullivan's Island architectural mix.
“The town’s done a good job of striking that balance,” Judy Hazel said.