Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Moving a mountain in Greenville, South Carolina

Photos courtesy of Jason Smit, SCSMITTY on flickr.

The Wilkins House was built during 1876 in what then was a prime residential neighborhood of Greenville, South Carolina.

Historic preservationists routinely try to move mountains --- sometimes literally --- and sometimes they succeed. So I've been following the saga of Greenville, South Carolina's, mountainous Wilkins house, a grand Italianate survivor that is in a close race against demolition as spring approaches.

The big brick house weighs an estimated 1,000 tons and if it is to survive must be picked up and moved to a new location in that city, one of South Carolina's largest with a metro area population of approximately 1.4 million.

The Wilkins House foyer and the curving staircase beyond it, never altered, are worth the price of admission in themselves.

There are all sorts of preservation challenges, including neglect and indifference, but the changing nature of neighborhoods is a big one, too --- especially when the ground under a structure becomes worth many times the value of the building  --- no matter how fine --- upon it.

That's what happened to the Wilkins house, built ca. 1876 along Augusta Street in Greenville by William and Harriet Wilkins. He was partner in a hardware company and Augusta Street was one of the places where the city's elite built their showplaces. Wilkins also built Greenville's first opera house and he and his wife were civic and social leaders of the city.

The hall opens to the left into a big room with a smaller bay-windowed room behind it. Floor-length windows, including those opening here on either side of an original fireplace into what once was a sun room, raise into wall pockets so that they can double as doors.

As the nature of Greenville changed, however, August Street became a busy commercial thoroughfare and grand old homes were demolished --- with the exception of the Wilkins house.

It was enlarged and adapted to serve as a funeral home and always has been well-maintained. After many years of service, the undertakers moved out and the old house and its newer wings served as an antiques shop and special events venue. None of this, however, changed the essential nature of the original mansion and its stunning interiors remain largely intact.

What may once have been twin parlors, substantially altered to adapt the house for funeral home use, are located on the other side of the entrance hall. The crystal gasolier light fixtures, now electrified, are original to the house. In the bottom photo, an addition to the right side of the house opens through an original exterior window into the double parlors.

Eventually, the four-acre site was sold to a property developer who plans to build a 103-bed assisted living center upon it and dispose of the Wilkins house, one way or another.

In response, the "Save the Wilkins House Initiative" was launched by preservation-minded Greenville residents and that group has partnered with the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation. The groups hope to finance a move for the original thousand-ton brick house --- later additions stripped away --- to a nearby secure location, a project that carries an estimated cost of $760,000. 

Nearly half of that amount has been pledged by one person but a $360,000 gap remains --- and the end of March is the deadline for raising it. If that amount is raised and the project gets off the ground, it would be the most complex house move ever undertaken in the Greenville region.

The photos here, commissioned by the preservation partners, give some idea of the quality of the interior.

If you'd like to follow the project, just "like" its Facebook page here. Additional interior photos are available here, via flickr.


Iris Barber said...

That is a historical treasure. I just admire how the government of South Carolina has been able to preserve such beauty over the years. It's really hard to preserve a treasure like that, especially when everything is starting to get modernized and commercialized.

Iris Barber

Jason Smit said...

I came across your blog after seeing one of the Wilkins House photos that I took appear on a local news website, and credited to you. While it is good to see you bring attention to the need for preserving this important piece of history, I would also appreciate it if proper permission was sought before reposting my photos. I would be glad for them to remain as long as they are given proper credit to their origin. I am also bringing this to the attention of the news station that used them. Thank you for your consideration, Jason Smit

Frank D. Myers said...

Oops --- credit was the last thing I intended to claim. If I'm remembering correctly I picked these up off of the Wilkins House Facebook page without paying enough attention to who had taken them and will get it sorted after another meeting or two today.

Frank D. Myers said...

Done. Hopefully, you're SCSMITTY. Great photos!