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Behre: Deep dives into a house's history are the exception, not the rule — even in Charleston

122 Rutledge

The new owners of 122 Rutledge Ave. did more than fix the rotten wood and seal the roof; they initiated a deep dive into its unique history -- and uncovered some surprises along the way. Robert Behre/Staff

Thousands of old houses and other buildings lie within Charleston’s National Register Historic District, which covers much of the city’s southern peninsula. Contrary to what most people think — and despite the city’s lengthy history and enduring popularity as a tourist destination — we know surprisingly little about most of them.

Only 30 of the city’s best-known buildings are listed as National Historic Landmarks, the highest such designation by the federal government. These include several of Charleston’s oldest (Powder Magazine, Robert Brewton House), most architecturally ornate (Nathaniel Russell House, the Unitarian Church, the Farmers and Exchange Bank) and historically significant (Old Exchange, St. Michael’s Church) buildings.

Another 100 or so buildings are singled out as contributing to the historic district on the listing’s paperwork. Those are all pretty well researched.

But the vast majority are not, at least not in any easily, publicly accessible form. The most recent exception to this is the Queen Anne at 122 Rutledge Ave., right across the street from Cannon Park. It recently became one of only a handful of historic properties in the city’s historic district to get listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places.

When Sam and Lauren Clawson recently bought the home, they were curious about its past; they were moving from another old home downtown. They also needed to make some exterior repairs, so they sought out the state’s historic homeowners tax credit. Their contractor, Meadors, Inc., did some of the minimal documentation work to qualify for that tax break, but they wanted to know even more.

“We decided let’s just keep digging and find out what all we could about the house and the original builder,” Sam Clawson says.

And they discovered a lot, including the home’s long-forgotten link to one of West Ashley’s earliest suburban neighborhoods.

It was built around 1896 by James Stocker Simmons, a prominent businessman who developed Windermere (known today as Old Windermere), so this makes 122 Rutledge likely Charleston’s first downtown home recognized for its link to the city’s West Ashley suburban growth.

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The nomination notes that the 1920s Windermere neighborhood “is an outstanding example of a residential suburban development that introduced important trends and design principles locally and was particularly influential as a prototype for subsequent suburb design in Charleston, as it introduced a curvilinear street pattern, deed restrictions, and an architectural control committee. The mostly residential suburb was built in response to the rapid population growth of Charleston and the need for affordable housing beyond the downtown peninsula and outside of the city boundaries. The design, plan, and success of the neighborhood is the direct result of Simmons’s vision and business acumen.”

But that wasn’t the only surprise find.

Meadors’ architectural conservator Kalen McNabb found the house’s architectural design intriguingly similar to a nationally publicized design in the Radford American Homes around 1906. Its Design 141 in turn seems to have been inspired by Robert W. Shoppell’s “Design 1990” published in a 1900 edition of Modern Houses. Of course, the house at 122 Rutledge was built before either. Did it inspire those designs published for a national audience? McNabb suspects so but didn’t find definitive proof.

Doing the necessary research to have a home placed on the National Register is no easy feat — and the state’s standards have grown more exacting in recent decades. There’s also a chicken-and-egg question, because many old homes in the historic district ultimately might not meet one of the criteria to qualify for an individual listing (122 Rutledge qualified as locally significant for its tie to Stocker and the city’s early 20th century planning and development).

Elizabeth Johnson of the State Historic Preservation Office says the state doesn’t try to encourage or discourage such individual National Register nominations when a property already is in a historic district; it does try to give owners a sense of the work involved in pursuing one, though.

Any property must be shown to meet one of four criteria: have a strong association with historic events; have an association with a historic figure; have an appearance that embodies a type, period or method of construction “or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values”; or have the potential of yielding significant information important to history or prehistory, such as archaeological finds.

Asked how many downtown properties ultimately might make the grade, Johnson replied only, “I wouldn’t even hazard a guess.”

So we really don’t know much; we particularly don’t know what we don’t know.

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

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