MOSQUITO BEACH — Charleston County's building inspections department is working to demolish a 1962 hotel here, one that many consider a unique and historic survivor of the Lowcountry's Jim Crow era.

Another county department is working to update its survey of historically significant buildings, such as the 1962 hotel.

Caught in the middle is the owner, William "Cubby" Wilder, who hopes to save the building his uncle built during a time when blacks weren't allowed to vacation on nearby Folly Beach.

He has rallied Charleston's historic preservation community to his side.

Chris Cody, advocacy director for the Historic Charleston Foundation, wrote the county's legal team to criticize its efforts to raze the building, arguing it poses no health or safety threat. Cody noted the foundation is seeking a $45,000 federal civil rights grant to study how best to preserve the hotel and its surroundings on the beach.

"We are also astounded at the bureaucratic dissonance surrounding this proposed demolition," he said. "Incredibly, Charleston County is simultaneously working to both preserve this site and to demolish it."

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Cubby Wilder inside the former hotel on Mosquito Beach Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Meeting in court

Wilder hired attorney Trent Kernodle to try to derail or at least delay the county's demolition plans.

Kernodle squared off in court Thursday before Circuit Judge Kristi Harrington, arguing the county missed a deadline for filing its response by 259 days and should not be allowed to file late. Chief Deputy County Attorney Bernard Ferrara  called it a simple oversight.

Harrington did not rule from the bench, but if she does not allow the late filing, that would bolster Wilder's appeal and buy him more time. A formal appeal hearing is set for Feb. 9 before a different judge.

The battle between Wilder and the county has dragged on for at least four years. The county has required him to secure the vacant building by boarding up its windows and doors, removing its exterior stairs and installing a 6-foot fence around it.

He has done that, but the county's Construction Board of Adjustment and Appeals has upheld a staff order to take the building down because of "no or insufficient progress" in its rehabilitation.

County spokesman Shawn Smetana has said the county's ordinance governing unsafe structures outweighs its potential historic value — a viewpoint echoed Thursday by the county's legal staff. 

Even if Wilder wins his appeal this month, the same staff and board could simply start over with the same goal: ensuring it's torn down.

"It's a race for time," Kernodle told Judge Harrington.

Some new hope

The Historic Charleston Foundation is seeking a $45,000 federal grant to complete research necessary to place the hotel and other Mosquito Beach properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Today, the future of Mosquito Beach is in jeopardy, both the physical structures at the site and the stories of the people who remember its important history," the grant application says. "The buildings located on Mosquito Beach are threatened by time and subsequent deterioration and by looming potential development."

Foundation officials said they hope to learn soon about whether the grant will be approved.

If it is, the foundation would hire a consultant to help create a national register district, new historical markers and a web page that would cover the area's history as well as its future possibilities.

The grant notes that deterioration isn't the only challenge. The area also is threatened by sea level rise and by its reputation for shootings and crime.

"Community members believe that by highlighting the history of Mosquito Beach as a family-friendly recreation area and a refuge during the era of racial segregation, the site would receive positive attention that would help to rewrite the more negative recent narrative," the grant application says.

County Councilman Joe Qualey, whose district covers much of James Island, said he doesn't want to interfere in any pending county legal issue but hopes a way can be found to preserve this building. "As we've all seen in Charleston, once it's gone, it's gone," he said.

'This is history to us' 

Kyle Taylor, a builder, is working with Wilder to revive this building and other old nearby buildings, including a few restaurants. He studied architecture at Columbia University and knows their value is in their history, not in their design. Wilder's two-story hotel doesn't look like a hotel, but more like an unremarkable, rectangular home. It is to most people's conception of a hotel, to what Mosquito Beach is to most people's conception of a beach.

"It's not a beach," Taylor said. "It's a marsh, but they used it as a beach. This was the only place they could go."

The hotel was known as the "Pine Tree Hotel" and once had 14 rooms, but it has stood empty since Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989. To reach its front door, people place their foot on top of a discarded amplifier used as a step. Inside, the building serves as storage for old sound equipment, chairs, ladders, rugs and other stuff.

Cody said the hotel "is not architecturally significant, (but) it is socially significant as part of the African-American story in the Lowcountry and as a relic of racial segregation."

Michael Bedenbaugh of PreserveSC agreed and has said "If we lose buildings like this, a very large, important part of the story of South Carolina will be lost as well."

Its modest nature underscores its history. It illustrates how African-Americans battling Jim Crow didn't have much money but did the best they could and got by. Guests who stayed in one of its 14 rooms during its heyday shared a common kitchen and a bathroom.

Wilder said he knows the building cannot be renovated into a hotel, but he and Taylor think it could make a nice jazz or blues club.

Norman Khouri, who runs the Island Breeze restaurant next door, called the hotel very important to the beach.

"This is history to us," he said. "We hold onto that and hope and pray they will allow it to stay."

What also makes Mosquito Beach unique is that it still has its Jim Crow era ambiance and is still largely black-owned, Taylor said.

Many feel it's important to preserve what's left of Mosquito Beach before economic pressures, fed by its appealing marsh views and rising local land values, change it forever and its unique buildings are lost.

"It used to be a place where nobody wanted to be," Kernodle said, "but now the McMansions are rolling in. It’s a time warp now."

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.