What happened inside 20 South Battery St. a century ago might have been one of the most consequential meetings ever held inside a Charleston home — one that still resonates today.
It’s certainly one of only a few such meetings commemorated with a South Carolina historical marker.
That marker was set in place Sept. 25 as part of the Preservation Society of Charleston’s belated centennial celebration. (It first formed in April 1920; our COVID-19 lockdown prevented a more punctual observance.)
“On April 21, 1920, a group of citizens gathered here under the leadership of Susan Pringle Frost and formed the Society for Preservation of Old Dwellings, the first locally based historic preservation group in the U.S,” the marker reads. “The society was instrumental in the creation of the nation’s first historic district in 1931.”
The 1920 meeting was far from the city’s first preservation stirrings. Other “ladies societies” had begun working a few decades earlier to save Charleston’s old powder magazine and its Old Exchange.
But this was the first time a group would form here specifically for preservation’s sake. The notice announcing the meeting was geared toward women but also invited “any (and) all who love the beautiful in architecture, and who have the love of Charleston at heart.”
Thirty-two people, including a few men, showed up, and they weren’t all old Charlestonians. Michigan native and artist Alfred Hutty, who arrived in town a year earlier, joined them.
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In her notice, Miss Sue predicted the gathering would be “of vital and very far-reaching importance to Charleston, possibly not in a commercial sense as some count ‘commercial,’ but certainly in a very broad sense ‘commercial,’ as it will be the launching of a movement which has been needed in Charleston for some time, looking to the restoration and preservation of the finest in Charleston’s architectural past.” It’s almost as if she sensed the meeting would be worthy of a marker one day.
Current Society Board Chair Elizabeth Cahill notes the gathering had tea and mocha cakes, “which meant it was a real party.” Frost clapped her hands to convene the meeting; the group formed and soon elected officers. The main order of business was the fate of the Joseph Manigault House at Meeting Street and Ashmead Court. There was talk of it being used for an expanded Ford dealership.
“Manigault Home To Be Preserved,” read the headline in The News and Courier just a few days after the meeting. “Its Owners Step Aside,” a subhead read. “Local society, in process of organization, to keep up old buildings here.”
In reality, saving the Manigault house was an arduous task, with the financial burden borne almost exclusively by Ernest and Nell Pringle, who lived at 20 S. Battery. They acquired the home, but few society members were well off enough to chip in, as originally planned. The couple’s debt was so great they had to lease part of it to Standard Oil for use as a filling station. Nell Pringle wrote to John D. Rockefeller urging him to save its gatehouse; the company did and used it as a public restroom. Only in the 1930s were the Pringles able to sell it; the house became a museum in 1933.
While the society would adopt its current name in the 1950s, Frost thought it was important to have “dwelling” in its original name.
“She didn’t just see these houses as works of architecture, but places where people lived and breathed and worked and gave life to a great city,” Cahill says. “It was about what happened inside these buildings. She was interested in preserving them so people can use them and be in them.”
“In a way, Susan Frost and the whole Preservation Society’s contribution in its early years was to raise consciousness of what was at stake,” Cahill adds. As the society unveils its centennial, “It’s still about raising consciousness of what’s at stake.”
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.