Strolling the path along the Ashley River bank on Tuesday, Peter and Sheila Cashman of Chicago tried to conjure up images of the past.
“You can really sense what it must have been like in the 18th century,” Peter Cashman said of Middleton Place. “It’s really pristine.”
But the National Trust for Historic Preservation is afraid that the area won't stay that way unless it is protected from development.
Saying the Ashley River Historic District illustrates three centuries of South Carolina’s cultural heritage and provides the opportunity to study the area’s history and evolution, the National Trust for Historic Preservation on Tuesday declared it a National Treasure.
But it also named it one of the country’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, just months after suing to stop North Charleston from annexing a chunk of land along the historic corridor.
Asked if the designation is a conflict because of the lawsuit, Trust spokesman Germonique R. Ulmer said, "We are fortunate to have a particularly close-up insight into the threat for the Ashley River Road site."
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey celebrated the corridor's new label as a national treasure but ignored its new designation as endangered.
“The city of North Charleston is full of beautiful and historic places, but it is fantastic for a portion to be designated as a National Treasure," he said. "We join the Natural Trust for Historic Preservation in celebrating the cultural and historical aspects of our city.”
In March, the Trust, along with the city of Charleston, sued to stop North Charleston and landowner Whitfield Construction from expanding the city’s boundaries into the district, one that the trust has called “one of the most iconic and historic places in the South Carolina Lowcountry.”
“If you think about the significance of the region, this is really the cradle of South Carolina’s history, and both the cultural and rural character of the district is being threatened by the annexation of North Charleston,” said Carter Hudgins, president and CEO of the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust. “What we’re striving to do is to bring awareness to the importance and significance of the region in the hopes of protecting it for future generations.”
The National Trust has owned Drayton Hall since 1974, but the site is run by the Drayton Hall trust, which is not part of the lawsuit. The National Trust also owns a strip of land that runs parallel to Ashley River Road for several miles and another tract along the Ashley River.
In October, the Whitfield family annexed 113 acres of Runnymede Plantation into North Charleston and gave the city an acre within their 2,200 acre tract on the other side of S.C. Highway 61. Runnymede was a valid annexation because it's on the Ashley River, making it contiguous to North Charleston.
But Charleston and the National Trust are challenging the 1-acre annexation because it lies beyond the Trust’s strip, which is already in the city of Charleston.
The annexation of the large tract by North Charleston "could lead to zoning changes, likely ushering in intensive development (along with increased traffic, noise, and other impacts) that could irreparably damage the historic landscape and forever alter the integrity of this key piece of our nation’s history,” according to a press release from the Trust.
The Coastal Conservation League is happy to see the 24,000 acre district on the endangered list and hopes the attention will result in conservation and protection, said program Director Jason Crowley.
“We agree that the annexation proposal threatens this internationally significant cultural and environmental resource,” Crowley said. “This area not only includes cultural resources like Drayton Hall and Middleton Place but is also where the headwaters of Church Creek begin, which must be preserved in order to help address the chronic flooding in West Ashley.”
This isn’t the first time the area has been on the list. The Trust warned in 1995 that a miles-long swath of historic areas on both sides of the Ashley River was “being destroyed by traffic and urban sprawl.”
“Over the 30-year history of the program, we’ve had a number of cases of sites being listed multiple times,” Ulmer said. “A particular threat might return or was never alleviated in the first place. We do check in on sites periodically and we are often notified by local communities about the status of a site.”
In addition, since 2011, the Trust has worked with communities to find a preservation solution for some sites on the list, she said.
“Ashley River is also such a case, as today we are announcing Ashley River will become our newest National Treasures campaign,” she said.
Since 1988, nearly 300 places have made the annual list. It has included multiple South Carolina sites:
- 1988: Snee Farm, Mount Pleasant
- 1990, 1991: Penn School, Frogmore, South Carolina. “A model of a type of elementary-secondary school established by Northern religious and philanthropic organizations for educating the freedmen.”
- 1995: Ashley River Historic District, Charleston. “This district is now being destroyed by traffic and urban sprawl.”
- 2004: Gullah/Geechee Coast, South Carolina and Georgia
- 2007: Philip Simmons Workshop & Home, Charleston
- 2016: Charleston Naval Hospital District, North Charleston. The listing was in response to “the impending construction of a rail line proposed by Palmetto Railways.”
- 2018: Ashley River Historic District
Wade Spees contributed to this report.