Preserve Sgt. Jasper Apartments

The Sergeant Jasper Apartments. (File photo)

The purpose of historic preservation is to preserve old buildings and history, protect our quality of life, increase our property values, and provide an enjoyable and beautiful environment in which to live.

Other purposes are social and educational. By preserving the material past, we are able to understand history better, learn how others lived, appreciate the progress we have made, learn from our past mistakes, and appreciate those who struggled in the past.

By any criteria, except beauty, the Sergeant Jasper Apartments should be preserved not demolished. Actually, it would be a huge preservation moment for Charleston and I hope the Beach Company will consider it. Like Art Deco, 1950s architecture has made a comeback.

In 2016, we live in a city which never existed in history. The incredible affluence of our times and the influx of newcomers with unlimited funds to restore houses have transformed a city that once had a large variety of people of various social and economic classes into a gentrified, luxurious residential community, beautiful, getaway destination, and a playground for both average tourists and the wealthy.

We have forgotten a large part of our past, not the elegant Colonial part or the beautiful and romantic Old South part, but the last 150 years, since the Civil War, when Charleston was poor and home to rundown houses which would be unrecognizable to their previous owners, poor white and poor black neighborhoods, ethnic enclaves, industrial sites, docks, warehouses, and railroad depots. It is all gone, or will be in the next five years. In its place is a restored and renovated new city which obviously has much to offer that the Old Charleston did not. But some of our past is being lost in the process.

This brings me to the Sergeant Jasper, which is a landmark reminder of the 1940s and the 1950s when Charleston was poor. A major political figure, J.C. Long who was a state senator, a member of City Council, and a developer, had an idea. His idea was to use something new, FHA financing, to build an apartment building to provide multi-family affordable housing on a mudflat on the edge of town in a not particularly desirable neighborhood.

Lockwood Boulevard did not exist. That would have been the Ashley River. The mudflats and the marsh ran up against Moultrie Playground which was built on the site of a recently demolished lumber mill across from Colonial Lake. Colonial Lake, which was previously known as “the Rutledge Street Pond,” was not a lake at all, but the backwash of the Ashley River, “a muddy tidal pond,” as one historian described it. Indeed, Cummings Creek, which is buried under The Sergeant Jasper, was a sewer outlet from the Rutledge Street Pond to the Ashley River.

Long tried to build the Sergeant Jasper on Moultrie Playground, but the neighbors protested, so he bought the marsh next to it for $5,000 and filled it in.

The Sergeant Jasper and its sister building, the Darlington Apartments on Mount Pleasant Street, provided much needed multi-family affordable housing. The Sergeant Jasper was a beautiful building in the 1950’s. It was new. It was different. It was modern. It was a place a widow or older couple or young working couple could afford to live.

It was not, and never has been, a “gateway” to historic Charleston. It was built on filled-in marsh on the outskirts of the historic district. So, to those who say the Sergeant Jasper was a mistake when it was built, I say, think of all those middle class families to whom it was a paradise and a lifesaver.

Now, this honest, forthright, working building, which has true architectural integrity and is a perfect example of its time and place, is considered beneath our newfound affluent pretensions. After all, it only provided affordable housing to generations of Charlestonians.

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The Sergeant Jasper must be demolished and replaced by a thoroughly faux “historic” replica of something which never existed to “fit in” to a newfound “historic district,” formerly a lumber mill, a mudflat, and an eyesore on the banks of the Ashley River.

Actually, the Sergeant Jasper (and the Darlington Apartments) staying put — as is — would be a true reminder of the real history of Charleston: that late 19th and 20th century history of poverty, struggle and humility when Charlestonians were “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash” and were grateful for a secure, affordable place to live on the edge of a run-down but proud historic district.

That would be ... true historic preservation at its best and most instructive.

Robert N. Rosen is a Charleston attorney and the author of “A Short History of Charleston.” Some of his family members lived in both the Sergeant Jasper and the Darlington Apartments.