Former orphanage would develop property to continue serving children in need

Sam Holmes, with Jenkins Institute for Children, talks about the possibilities for future development of the land off Azalea Avenue where the facility is located.

In recent years, the Jenkins Institute for Children has hit on hard times, a far cry from the days when it operated its own farm, was responsible for raising hundreds of children and became known around the globe for its one-of-a-kind musical jazz bands.

But at last count, there were a mere 18 residents -- all girls -- living on the institute's sprawling 50-acre plot on a bluff overlooking the Ashley River.

Formerly known as the Jenkins Orphanage, the institute's wealth was for years its moss-draped property. And now, after years of attempts to develop the land, its operators think they have an idea that will work.

North Charleston officials this week gave preliminary zoning approval for a plan of townhouses, dormitories, a wellness center and senior-citizen housing that the institute's board wants to lease for development. In turn, the revenue would ensure a trust aimed at keeping the mission running.

Other features on the drawing board include a community garden, a conference center, an area for homeless female veterans to live, an orphanage museum and a park that officials want Charleston County to operate. At least two campus design proposals are being considered.

Getting the approval for planned development district zoning was just a preliminary step. It could be years before any ground is broken in a deal that hinges on financing.

But unless the project comes about, the institute faces an uncertain future, said Hank Tisdale, chairman of the board that runs the institute, on Friday. "The land is too beautiful and too important to leave undeveloped,"

The institute, off Azalea Drive, has deep roots. The orphanage was started by Jenkins in 1891, on Franklin Street in downtown Charleston. Its popularity and need were immediate -- more than 360 boys were taken in the first year.

In short time, Jenkins started the orphanage's signature brass band as a means of raising money.

Over the years, those bands brought a Charleston brand of street jazz to an international stage, going on tours as far away as Europe. Their performances featured a Gullah-based step that some believe evolved into the dance craze "The Charleston."

The orphanage moved to the banks of the Ashley River in the 1930s.

Today the institute's mission has changed greatly. Few of the girls are orphans; they are living there under protective custody as victims of sexual abuse or neglect. They go to school and have tutors.

Tisdale said developing the land and putting proceeds in a trust would mean the institute "would not have to beg every year."

Surviving in the current economy has been difficult, he said. Budget cuts in state government have curbed some of the social services that had been available to the institute, he said. Also, orphanages in general have gotten smaller since World War II, because of the rise in foster care.

Finding investors is part of the process. "I hope they will be knocking down our doors to get in here," said Sam Holmes, volunteer coordinator at Jenkins.

Johanna Martin-Carrington, executive director of the Orphan Aid Society at Jenkins, said leasing the property and expanding the campus to cover the needs of several generations is a natural progression of the Jenkins mission, even if it is far different from what began downtown 120 years ago.

"We don't have a band to go around the world like the one Rev. Jenkins started," she said. "We don't have a farm. We've got to do what we've got to do to sustain ourselves."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at skropf@postandcourier.com or 937-5551.