Magazine honors Park Circle

Charleston may attract millions of tourists because of its old houses, but North Charleston's Park Circle neighborhood has been named one of this year's "Best Old-House Neighborhoods."

The honor did not surprise many who live there, including Tradd Gibbs, whose home is in Oak Terrace Preserve and who runs Cork Bistro on East Montague Avenue.

"Everybody knows everybody," Gibbs said recently while hanging out with two of his friends.

Gibbs said he persuaded his wife to move there from Mount Pleasant several years ago, adding, "We wouldn't live anywhere else. You can be anywhere in Charleston in 10 or 15 minutes."

The editors of This Old House magazine chose Park Circle as one of

61 great spots, based on architectural diversity, craftsmanship of the homes and the area's preservation momentum-- plus walkability, safety and a sense of community.

This Old House praised Park Circle for its "hundreds of lovingly crafted -- albeit more modest and affordable -- old houses surrounding a 30-plus-acre park filled with baseball fields, playgrounds, and a weekly farmer's market."

It also praised the shops and restaurants along East Montague Avenue, new area schools and easy commutes.

Mayor Keith Summey, a longtime Park Circle resident who built a new home there several years ago, said the city is honored to make the list.

"We consider it validation that Park Circle and the city of North Charleston are truly a great place to live, work and play."

John Hohn, one of Gibbs' friends, said the sense of community is what mostly distinguishes Park Circle. "There's no reason to travel anymore. Anywhere you go you're going to see someone you know and have a great time."

Sue Thigpen, who lives with her husband above their restaurant, Johnny's, on East Montague, said she has seen the Park Circle area during its boom times when Westvaco, GARCO and the Navy base and shipyard were among the Lowcountry's largest employers.

She also has seen it during its lean times.

She praised Summey's decision to open Aunt Bea's restaurant, which recently closed on East Montague, as an important step in turning the tide. The city also has planted trees and redone the sidewalks in recent years.

Meanwhile, some of the district's most neglected buildings have been razed or redone.

"The question among us was which was going to take off first -- the lovely old houses that needed to be restored or the business district," she said. "Getting rid of the eyesores really helped."

After the nearby Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard closed in 1996, Summey said the city hoped for a renaissance, "and we got just that."

The Park Circle neighborhood comprises the core of historic North Charleston, if that adjective fits a city that's only 40 years old.

The area began to take shape in 1912 as a Garden City, a movement that began in 1898 to create planned, self-contained communities surrounded by parks and with proper amounts of homes, industries and farms.

But Park Circle's development -- like that of the Lowcountry in general -- would see moments of fits and starts.

There are no easily understandable boundaries, like "South of Broad" in Charleston, but most agree Park Circle includes the area between Virginia Avenue to the east, the train tracks that cross North Rhett to the north, Mixson Avenue to the west and Bexley Street to the south.

The area features homes built between the early 20th century and this year, and while many are modest bungalows or ranch-style homes, they also are among the most affordable in the Lowcountry market.

As prices soared on Charleston's peninsula, a growing number of people, such as Drew Pedersen, began considering Park Circle.

"I came up here, and this was much more than I expected," he said. "I got work in the neighborhood and never left."

 

Considered the "First New South Garden City," here are some landmarks in Park Circle's development:

1912: The North Charleston Corp. is formed to develop about 5,000 acres between Filbin and Noisette creeks and the Cooper River into an "urban environment that will draw together both agricultural and urban industrial activities." Its six owners were prominent Charlestonians and members of the city's "Broad Street Ring."

1913: P.J. Berkmans Co. of Augusta, Ga., one of the South's first landscape architecture firms, and William Bell Marquis, a fan of the City Beautiful movement, unveil their street grid plan that revolves around a circular park about 300 feet in diameter.

1915: The development is first advertised in The News and Courier, while streetcar service is extended to Montague and O'Hear avenues. The General Asbestos and Rubber Co. (GARCO) plans a mill in Park Circle's northeastern corner.

1917: Park Circle gets its first store and a school for black children.

1920: The U.S. census shows an integrated community of 157 households in the area.

1923: Baptist, Methodist and Episcopal churches are established there.

1925: The dream of a New South Garden city ends as a Baltimore bank assumes the debts and assets of the North Charleston Corp.

1929: New bridges from Charleston's peninsula to West Ashley and East Cooper siphon off Park Circle's momentum, as does the stock market crash.

1936: The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Mill opens just north of Park Circle.

1941: World War II and the build-up at the Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard lead to a series of new, affordable housing projects around Park Circle.

1972: The city of North Charleston incorporates, with its boundaries mostly covering the Park Circle area.

1990: The Felix Jones Community Center opens.

1996: The Charleston Naval Base closes. GARCO already had shut down, leading to fewer jobs and more blight.

2001: Mayor Keith Summey's commitment to revitalizing the city's southern neighborhoods, including Park Circle, is shown as the city unveils an ambitious partnership with Noisette Co. to redevelop the area in an environmentally sustainable way. Most World War II era housing projects are to be razed.

2012: This Old House magazine names Park Circle as a "Best Old-House Neighborhood."