Decades since injured World War II-era soldiers were treated within its walls, the historic structure on the former Navy base in North Charleston will be a place where communities can come together and find solutions to critical issues.
The Coastal Community Foundation will soon take residence of the former Sick Officers' Quarters — now an office building in the Naval Hospital Historic District. With the help of a large donation from Frank and Kristi Haygood , the foundation was able to purchase the $2.7 million property at 1691 Turnbull Ave.
While efforts have been underway to revitalize and preserve the old base, various structures in the historic district have become dilapidated and the site remains vulnerable with a rail line planned to run about 1,400 feet through the area.
The nonprofit hopes to make the restored building a gathering space for people to address concerns around education, housing and economic opportunities while preserving America's history.
Site in jeopardy
The base dates back to 1900 and its hospital complex had several hundred beds as World War I closed. In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill that led to its significant expansion as one of the nation’s nine new Navy hospitals, providing medical care for thousands of wounded World War II soldiers.
The two-story, 16,000-square-foot building was originally constructed as nurses' quarters before it eventually became a facility to treat sick officers who would have been separated by rank, said North Charleston archivist Don Campagna.
“The uses of that building evolved as the needs of the service did," he said.
The hospital complex continued to treat patients until 1972. Since then, the Sick Officers' Quarters was renovated in 2012 and recently used by an engineering group.
However, several other historic structures have been lost while some sit in disrepair. The exterior of the main hospital complex, also on Turnbull Avenue, is marked with graffiti, broken windows and a roof with several holes.
The future of the area is in jeopardy as Palmetto Railways plans to build a rail line that calls for the demolition of several historic buildings in the district. In 2016, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the district to its 11 Most Endangered Places list.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said he is concerned about whether the adjacent property will be used for industrial or community-oriented purposes.
Preservationists say the establishment of the rail line and demolition of historic structures could lead to the site being removed from the National Registry.
“It will decimate that district," Campagna said.
To mitigate concerns, Palmetto Railways and preservation groups agreed to establish the Charleston Naval Base Historic Trust. It would start with $2 million in seed funding from the railway company that would be used to attract future owners or tenants for the old hospital building and the Marine barracks, which both sit vacant.
The organization is also preparing documents required to nominate the Marine barracks building for the National Register of Historic Places, according to Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer Patrick McCrory.
Palmetto Railways, a division of the S.C. Department of Commerce, helped relocate and rehabilitate the old Navy Chapel and made conditions in the sale of the Power House that the structure should be revitalized within two years.
The presence of the community foundation gives many hope for the future of the historic area.
The Charleston-based group, which administers hundreds of charitable funds and awards about $13 million in grants annually, will relocate from its rented space on Rutledge Avenue.
The foundation was in search of a permanent location when Haygood, a Charleston real estate investor, offered to help the group purchase the multi-million dollar building in the historic district.
“I was blown away," said Darrin Goss, foundation president and chief executive officer, who added the gift is one of the largest to help the foundation with its operations. "This is an affirmation, from the donor, that the community foundation's work is vital."
Haygood said supporting the Coastal Community Foundation’s mission is an effective way to invest in the region’s future.
“The former Naval Base is really coming into its own now and adding Coastal Community Foundation to the mix is just another key to unlocking its potential," he said.
The foundation would not disclose the amount of the donation, only that it was seven figures.
The structure was renovated less than 10 years ago, so the foundation won't have much structural work to do. A wellness room will be installed for staff members.
Foundation staff members will occupy most of the building, but the group plans to offer space to a philanthropic or human services organization.
While the organization has connected donors to causes they care about for the past 45 years, the move to North Charleston comes as the group aims to advocate for changes that can't be solved with dollars alone, foundation leaders said.
With a recent civic engagement agenda, foundation members identified economic opportunity, education, affordable places and inclusive spaces as the top issues facing the community.
It takes only a drive to the foundation's new headquarters on North Charleston's south end, an area that contains blighted communities and struggling schools, to witness these struggles. The foundation hopes to offer a place where community partners can meet and discuss resolutions for these concerns.
“I hope this place is a place of innovation that says 'what’s possible' versus 'what’s not possible,' ” Goss said.
Community leaders also hope that the effort leads to further preservation efforts across the historic district.
Campagna said the foundation's move is a "hopeful sign" for the historic district's preservation and he wishes others would see the value in saving age-old structures.
Since the base closed in 1996, nonprofits, government agencies and schools have taken residence on the site. Campagna said the historic district provides an opportunity to create a vibrant community while preserving America's history.
“What those folks did in World War II cannot be underestimated," he said. "What they did was heroic and deserves to be remembered and taught for the future.”