When it comes to history, the Preservation Society of Charleston has long filled the dual role of both protector and instigator. The society's first meeting in 1920 launched the modern American preservation movement, and its early converts not only saved much of the city's historic fabric, they also popularized a misty narrative of antebellum Charleston society that eventually transformed the city from a Reconstruction backwater to an international tourist destination.
So it was local news of some note in 2009 when the society — famed for its elegant historic-district house tours each fall — announced plans to cross the gritty Crosstown Expressway for a spring tour of homes in Hampton Park Terrace, a collection of early-20th-century houses nestled between the Citadel and Rutledge Avenue, running south from Hampton Park to Congress Street.
Three years later, the society is returning for a second round of Uptown house tours on May 5-6. Hampton Park Terrace gets another engagement thanks to its ongoing centennial celebration, but this year's headliner is a neighborhood most Charlestonians wouldn't even recognize by its name: Wilson's Farm.
That's in part because of the way Charlestonians refer to areas north of Calhoun Street, says Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society. He illustrates his point by unfolding a large map of the peninsula across his broad desk, tapping on Upper Peninsula neighborhoods marked to show the results of the society's recent research.
Today's Charlestonians talk in terms of Eastside and Westside, with North Central and Wagener Terrace farther up, Thompson says. But those generic terms mask individual neighborhoods with forgotten names and distinct stories, such as Wilson's Farm, a subdivision laid out by the city's elites in the late 19th century and constructed between 1902 and 1910. It's the reason why the houses between King and Rutledge north of the Crosstown to Sumter Street look different than those on surrounding blocks.
And here's the largely forgotten reason why: During the late 19th century — decades before national marketing elevated antebellum nostalgia to the Lowcountry's top export — local leaders planned to revive the city by embracing modernity and industry. Their vision called for an expanding middle class, and Wilson's Farm was to be its heart. Designed as the city's first streetcar suburb, the modern new houses offered the latest trend — indoor plumbing — and the Rutledge Avenue trolley line provided affordable mass-transit to the new industrial jobs in what would become North Charleston.
"They were trying to sell a new Charleston," says Thompson, explaining how the city's turn-of-the-century story got lost in the tourism shuffle. "But from a modern-day perspective, when people come to Charleston, they're looking for antebellum Charleston."
Charleston's push toward a progressive future surrendered to the city's aristocratic affinity toward the past in the 1930s, and though tourism brought visitors, it didn't generate the prosperity required to pull the city out of its post-Reconstruction funk. Bridges across the Ashley and Cooper rivers connected the city to new suburbs, and the once-bright optimism on the northern peninsula slumped toward poverty. Only in the past decade has the city's post-1970s resurgence offered the area much substance.
These days, however, Uptown is booming again, with new middle-class residents investing significant amounts of cash in the restoration of their historic homes. The society wants to reward those preservation efforts, Thompson says, and is investing new energy into researching the history of Upper Peninsula neighborhoods.
"For a lot of people, the Crosstown is sort of a psychological barrier," Thompson says. "Everything that's north of the Crosstown is sort of a no-man's land of history and architecture. But there's remarkable history. It's 20th-century history, for the most part, but in any other city these would be core, historic neighborhoods. It's just that we have so much history here that it's often overlooked."
Unlike the society's nationally advertised fall tours, these spring tours are marketed to locals, not tourists. The event, promoted on fliers as "We're Going There," will raise money for three projects: the society's annual Seven to Save program, the restoration of Allan Park in Hampton Park Terrace, and a fund to paint up to five local historic homes. Thompson says this won't be the end of the organization's interest in the area, or in understanding what happened here in the 20th century.
"In our shop we sell what we call our Halsey Map, which is this map that shows the peninsula and all the different historical events: the fires, the boroughs, etc., etc.," Thompson says. "North of Line Street, roughly north of the Crosstown, it's just a big green blob. It's time now to start filling in the other half of the peninsula and its story."