Charleston’s long commitment to preserving important buildings and streetscapes has paid off. People around the world admire the city for its beauty and visitors leave with an appreciation of its history. Or part of it.
In recent years, Charleston’s preservation initiatives have broadened to protect a more accurate picture of the area. And news that the National Park Service will grant $490,861 to stabilize the Pine Tree Hotel on James Island is an example to celebrate.
It isn’t grand. It isn’t beautiful in the traditional sense. It isn’t terribly old. And it isn’t downtown. But it represents a telling part of Charleston’s history — a part that helped shape what the city is now.
The Pine Tree Hotel, almost torn down by the county several years ago because it was so dilapidated, is a remnant of Mosquito Beach, which, for years, was one of only a few recreational places on South Carolina’s coast where African-Americans were welcome.
Winslow Hastie, president and CEO of the Historic Charleston Foundation, said Mosquito Beach is part of the larger story of James Island’s Sol Legare community, which was settled by newly freed slaves and remains largely owned by their descendants.
“Of the five historic ‘black beaches’ in Charleston County, Mosquito Beach is the only one remaining virtually intact,” he said.
HCF, which applied for the grant and will administer it, also researched the site and nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places. The money comes from the African-American Civil Rights Grant Program, which is funded by the Historic Preservation Fund and administered by the Park Service.
Telling a more accurate story of Charleston is the right thing for healthy preservation. It’s also proving to make practical sense. McLeod Plantation on James Island has won praise for its restoration and its willingness to address the issue of slavery in a forthright manner. Middleton Place has done the same. The International African American Museum is ready to be built.
The Pine Tree Hotel, a modest place for African-Americans to stay while visiting Mosquito Beach, was most popular in the 1950s, long after slavery, but right in the middle of segregation. The hotel had 14 rooms with a communal kitchen and communal bathrooms on its first and second floors. It closed as other beaches integrated.
William “Cubby” Wilder owns the building, which was built by his late uncle Andrew Jackson “Apple” Wilder. He said the grant will enable him to transform it into an educational and entrepreneurial hub for local African-Americans. Plans are still being considered but are expected to include eight affordable rooms to rent on the second floor. The first floor would have one room for rent that is ADA-compliant and five commercial vendor booths to draw people to the educational site and also bring business opportunities to the community.
Construction could begin in earnest by early 2020 and finish by early 2021. The fewer hurricane seasons the unstable Pine Tree Hotel is subjected to, the better. It needs structural work as well as a new roof and porches. Its electrical and mechanical systems need to be brought up to code.
And its story needs to be told as a chapter in the area’s wider narrative.