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Why a pair of old Charleston smokestacks are more than just smokestacks

Not much is left of Charleston’s industrial past, especially on the historic peninsula. The former Rice Mill on the Ashley River near the City Marina survives as an event space for rent. The skeletal facade of the Bennett Rice Mill serves as the gateway to the state Ports Authority’s Union Pier Terminal.

The Cigar Factory building has been converted into offices and retail. A couple of cement pillars and a support beam is all that remains of the old Grace Memorial Bridge that connected Charleston and Mount Pleasant.

Most of the architectural remnants of the city’s industrial activities have disappeared. And now, the community will see two iconic 135-foot smokestacks, part of St. Julian Devine Community Center in Charleston East Side neighborhood, reduced in height by more than half because of safety concerns.

The pair of smokestacks have become a prominent landmark of the city — objects that for many driving south on Highway 17 across the current Cooper River bridge signal the entryway to Charleston. City officials recently announced the stacks were structurally unsound and would be demolished quickly, before the next hurricane had a chance to blow them down onto surrounding properties.

The municipal shutdown and budget cuts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have left little discretionary funds available for extensive restoration work that could cost millions of dollars. But the city on Sept. 3, prompted by outcry from preservationists and neighborhood residents, announced it was modifying its plans. Instead of complete demolition, workers plan to take down about 75 feet of the chimneys, leaving approximately 60 feet. The goal is to eliminate the safety hazard while preserving as much of the landmark as possible. The alternative solution will be put before Charleston City Council for approval Tuesday night.

Smokestack Interior

The interior brick liner of one of the East Side's two smokestacks shows a crack a few inches wide, which is destabilizing the structure. Provided

Neighborhood leaders, such as Latonya Gamble, president of the East Side Development Corp., and Joe Watson, owner of Mary’s Sweet Shop, expressed a degree of relief, though others remained critical of the city, arguing that the partial demolition was a result of negligence.

Winslow Hastie, president of Historic Charleston Foundation, called it a “lame compromise.”

“This is the city’s problem; they are the steward of this important resource. It seems like they’re using hurricane season to expedite this, not going through proper channels to review this ... (channels) that any other entity would have to go through,” he said, referring to the Board of Architectural Review.

The St. Julian Devine Community Center renovation project started in 2012, and an inspection of the smokestacks was performed early on, Hastie said.

“They’ve known about it (the structural problems); this isn’t new,” he said. “The whole thing just sort of reeks to me.”

Jacob Lindsey, director of city planning, and city spokesman Jack O’Toole said the latest engineering report warning of imminent collapse came as a surprise and forced city officials to abandon their intentions to preserve the towers over the long-term.

“The city did have a plan,” Lindsey said. “The problem would have been solved prior to hurricane season had COVID not shut down the city. Had we thought we were faced with tearing them down, we would have brought in the preservation community, but we thought we were in reinforcement and renovation mode.”

It’s possible, he said, that deterioration of the inside fire-rated bricks accelerated in recent years.

Nostalgia tinged with soot

The chimneys were constructed by the city in 1935 with help from the Works Progress Administration and operated until August 1956. The property eventually became the East Side Rehabilitation Center, and then St. Julian Devine Community Center, named for the first Black man to serve on city council since Reconstruction. St. Julian Devine was a councilman from 1967 to 1975 and also briefly served as Mayor Pro Tem.

Now, an urban landscape alluding to an era before the big hotels and cruise ships came to dominate the vista will soon be altered.

Those distinctive tall chimneys now might appeal to the Charleston sense of nostalgia, but they were built as part of a garbage incinerator that spewed soot into the air. They were the tall cell phone towers of their day, utilitarian and disruptive, according to Lindsey.

“Functionally, these are industrial exhaust vents, smokestacks for a trash incinerator, the most noxious of uses right in the middle of our city,” he said. “They speak to the things that we’re so aware of today about equity, fairness and land use.”

But they are also tall objects that stand out, and beautiful in their own way, Lindsey said.

“In the past, industrial infrastructure was generally built with more architectural style,” he said.

Their height makes them visual landmarks; their beauty gives them aesthetic value; their history lends them cultural significance.

smokestacks 2.jpg

The 135-foot-tall smokestacks at St. Julian Devine Community Center on Cooper Street Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

'Right around the corner'

Arguably, they were an improvement over what was there before: an array of open-air dumps — salt marshes on the fringes of town where refuse was regularly deposited. But it also indicated that city officials didn’t think much of the neighborhood, according to Charleston County Public Library historian Nic Butler.

In the 1930s, that area still was called Hampstead Village, and it was a predominantly White, working-class neighborhood. It had been in decline after more than a century of ups and downs, made especially vulnerable by the shadows of the first Cooper River bridge, which opened to traffic in 1929.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the demographics of Hampstead Village began to shift. As West Ashley grew, and White residents left the peninsula for the suburbs, the old neighborhood fell into a state of neglect. The 1960 U.S. Census revealed it had become predominantly Black for the first time in its history.

The incinerator that became St. Julian Devine Community Center was the second to be built in the area, Butler said. In 1917, there were plans to fill in the Cannonsboro Mill Pond near Roper Hospital and construct a garbage-burning facility, but residents in the area objected loudly, forcing the city to look elsewhere.

They settled on an open lot at the intersection of America and Lee streets where Martin Park now is located. In 1918, the incinerator opened but proved to be inadequate and was shut down several years later, Butler said.

By the 1930s, open-air dumps were no longer justifiable, so city officials determined that Hampstead Hill on the edge of the neighborhood would serve as a good site for a new incinerator. By then, the neighborhood was populated mostly by poor and working-class Whites.

“Poor people are not going to put up a whole lot of protest, and are going to get trampled on,” Butler observed. “It a tradition everywhere.”

Watson, who moved to the neighborhood in 1954 when he was 4 or 5 years old, said he remembers the looming chimneys.

“We could see stacks from the yard of our house,” he said. “We were only 50 yards from the stacks, on Blake Street, right around the corner.”

As a child, he often roller-skated in the area, but avoided the steep truck ramp where trash was unloaded, Watson said.

Joe Watson (copy)

Joe Watson behind the counter of Mary's Sweet Shop in Hampstead Village, also known as Charleston's East Side. Watson's mother, Mary, opened the store as a restaurant 61 years ago. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

The incinerator complex is “part of the history of the community,” he said. Just like the Cigar Factory. “It was part of the engine that drove the economy in this area.” And it offered a better alternative to storing trash in the backyard.

Some of the kids in the neighborhood, including Watson, had asthma, but no one ever suggested there was a link between asthma and the incinerator.

“The doctor said, ‘You’ll grow out of it,’ and sure enough I did,” Watson recalled.

In the 1950s, the city was more isolated than it is today, with fewer and less-efficient highways, water on both sides, and farmland and wooded areas nearby, he said.

“I can remember going to first grade at Sanders-Clyde, walking by (the incinerator),” Watson said. “The first time I saw snow was right there in front of the stacks. That was 1956.”

Less unique

Watson said the smokestacks were examined and reinforced after Hurricane Hugo swept through in 1989. When the community center renovation started a few years ago, no one told community leaders that the stacks might be compromised.

“They gave us the impression everything was all right,” he said.

Gamble also said she was never informed about any potential hazard.

“I think the smokestacks signify our neighborhood,” she said. “They certainly have some significant (historical and sentimental) value. ... I am just really shocked that they would just tear them down.”

Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architecture Center, housed in the Cigar Factory building nearby, said the Charleston cityscape is becoming increasingly homogenized as more and more large hotels and apartment buildings are constructed. The architectural disruptions — church steeples, old chimneys — are what make the vistas interesting, he said.

“When you lose that, you lose it forever,” Huff said. “When you have something symbolic like the smokestacks, it’s worth making the investment to save it. ... Had this been, say, Ashley Hall, it would have been taken care of a long time ago.”

Jason Kronsberg, Charleston parks director, said the alternative plan was devised at Mayor John Tecklenberg’s insistence. It will cost a little less than $500,000 to dismantle the top portions of the stacks and reinforce the rest. The property sits in a Tax Increment Financing district, making it possible to gather necessary funding.

Bricks will be removed one by one, and possibly saved if they’re in good condition. He did not dismiss the possibility of rebuilding the towers. The effort will buy some time, he said. “Restoration work would need to be done at some point.”

Cigar Factory (copy)

The restored Cigar Factory is at East Bay and Columbus streets on the Charleston peninsula. File 

Lindsey floated the idea of doing more than merely restoring the stacks. Why not involve designers or artists to create a new kind of landmark, one that honors the neighborhood and the city’s industrial past?

Kristopher B. King, executive director of Preservation Society of Charleston, said he was disappointed that the two towers had been allowed to deteriorate so badly. They are symbols not only of the East Side community but of a dynamic and historical city.

“Charleston’s biggest asset is its uniqueness, and that it’s a vibrant, living community,” he said.

Contact Adam Parker at or 843-937-5902.

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