EDISTO ISLAND — Last week, for the first time in years, Simons Young stepped inside the shell of the structure known as Brick House without any sense of impending doom.
Preliminary preservation work has finally begun on his family's ruin — a National Historic Landmark and one of the Lowcountry's earliest, most substantial homes.
Built by Paul Hamilton, a wealthy planter, about 300 years ago, the shell of a house has stood in a precarious state for almost a century. A 1929 fire gutted its interior, leaving only four brick exterior walls and two massive chimneys.
While they have remained standing, their cracks and leans have gradually worsened over time — until this month.
That's when workers stripped the bricks of vegetation, bolted treated boards around the walls and installed other bracing into several window openings. They also shot sprayfoam into Ziplock bags wedged into larger cracks in the brick, and they began to attach galvanized metal tubes to the timber boards to add further stability.
The new work was designed not as a permanent fix but as a way to prevent the walls, one of which leans out 11 inches over its 26-foot-height, from crashing down.
It's essentially holding the building together through compression and will buy Young and his family more time.
The dicey part is over
Hoyt Roberts with Richard Marks Restorations has a lift on site that he can use to view the Brick House Ruin from the top down. The bird's-eye view reveals just how badly its walls and chimneys are leaning. If one were to topple, it could damage the others, essentially collapsing most of what's left standing.
The most nerve-wracking part of the job is already over. Workers installing the first bracing faced the prospect of a sudden collapse. Instead, just a few bricks sloughed off, but nothing major, he said.
Once the carpentry work wraps up next month, a different crew will begin repointing the most serious gaps in the bricks, even replacing a few bricks in spots.
Roberts said the bracing design, done in consultation with structural engineer John Moore of 4SE Engineers, could be removed one day. The only impact on the ruin was eight small holes drilled through to secure bolts and boards, and even those were debated.
Previous stabilization work was much more dramatic: In the 1960s, the ruin's two chimneys were lowered by about 12 feet each to prevent them falling over.
The current approach is not unlike what the State Ports Authority has done with the historic facade of the Bennett Rice Mill at Union Pier in downtown Charleston. For decades, that 19th century brick facade — considered one of the grandest industrial works of architecture for its time — has been braced with steel supports and occasionally repointed until a long-term preservation job can be done.
'Of utmost importance'
The family is not just working to preserve the ruin but also to understand more about it.
Earlier this year, the ruin was studied in detail by graduate students with Clemson University's and the College of Charleston's joint program in historic preservation. They provided a snapshot of its condition before the current stabilization work.
Students researched the history, put together a complete timeline and documented the ruins by measured drawings, documentary photos and then AutoCAD drawings. They detailed the ruin's vegetation growth, cracks, stucco, brick and mortar, and plumbness.
"The quality and use of the building materials employed for this project signifies not only the lasting durability of the structure but also the incredible capabilities, both financial and physical of the family and the builder response for its construction," their report said. "It is a dwelling of the utmost importance."
Rutledge Young, Simons' father, said the date of the house is up for debate. While the National Historic Landmark paperwork — and the plaque outside the ruin's door — puts its date of construction around 1725, other sources indicate it could be earlier than that.
Harriette Kershaw Leiding's book, "Historic Houses of South Carolina," notes the Edisto land was granted to Hamilton in the 1670s, and "it is thought that the house was erected some time between the years 1670 and 1680." She got that date from a historical record mentioning the marks on Hamilton's Edisto cattle in 1694.
Hamilton sold the house to James and Hariette Maxwell, and Joseph Jenkins bought the property in 1798, and his descendants have owned it ever since.
Its design has been described as French-inspired and as such shows the influence of French Huguenots in the Carolina colony's early days. Its national landmark nomination notes its similarity to the Chateau de la Haye d’Esquermes, a somewhat grander mansion built in France around 1675.
Its bricks, which are smaller and harder than most early Lowcountry brick, were imported either from up north or even from Europe.
A family's challenge
Simons Young, a Charleston architect, is the grandson of the late Elizabeth Jenkins Young, one of Charleston's most prominent figures on the city's historic preservation scene.
Despite her pioneering work (she also was the city's first licensed tour guide), she struggled to help her family find a preservation solution for her family's ruin.
Simons Young took up the cause about six years ago. His task was complicated because the ruin is not publicly accessible, partly because it sits at the end of a long, privately owned dirt road. The property, originally part of a 300-acre plantation, has several more recent homes just a stone's throw from the ruin.
The family has created a new nonprofit and already has had one oyster roast to raise money and plans more in the future.
The friends of Brick House have donated about $15,000 so far, according to Rutledge Young. The family has put in another $25,000, and the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Preservation Society of Charleston, The Rivers Foundation, South State Bank and The National Trust also have chipped in. All told, the nonprofit has secured about $56,000 toward the current work, which is estimated $70,000.
As the stabilization work winds down later this fall, the family will have many more years, possibly even decades, to come up with an answer to the more costly and complicated question: What should be done next?
But for now, Rutledge Young said, "My mother is smiling on Simons and me today."