By Robert Salvo

For those of us steeped in the pluff mud and tannin-dark waters of the Lowcountry, a span of 90 years can feel like the blink of an eye. Great oaks tell their story in centuries; a sunning alligator speaks to millennia. Creeks shift and shorelines shuffle back and forth — it’s the rhythm of our natural environment, as sure as the tides.

Yet we have held tightly to our built environment, too. This is a place where colonial churches and antebellum homes are not plates in a picture book, but rather objects in our backyards. For our man-made environment, 90 years can mean a great deal.

So it is with Edisto Island’s Brick House Ruins, also known as the Paul Hamilton House, likely constructed before 1700, gutted by fire in 1925 and silently standing roofless and gutted for more than nine decades. Much is gone, but much remains: Although its cypress-wood rooms were lost in the fire, the four exterior walls, made of fine brick imported from Boston, still stand, as do the towering interior chimneys. They tell a unique story, unlike any other structure in our country, about the role of French Huguenots in the colony; their stucco adornment around the windows and as quoins illustrate the French design influence that Huguenot refugees would have brought with them from their native land. For that reason — the home’s importance in telling the story of our nation and the hands that built it — the Ruins were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

Once the center of a sprawling plantation — Hamilton’s grant included 430 acres of high land and 181 acres of marsh — the home gained additional layers of history though the years as it remained in the hands of Jenkins family. After the Hamiltons came the Maxwells; Joseph Jenkins purchased it from them in 1798 and it has been in the family ever since. In the years just before the tragic fire, then-owner Edward J. Jenkins noted, “As I am the father of four boys and four girls, it will probably remain in our possession until the house crumbles to dust.”

Today the house is teetering on the edge of final destruction, nearly ready to “crumbling to dust.” In the 1950s, the legendary Albert Simons had steel beams placed in the windows in an attempt to stabilize the ruin. Though this worked for a time, the steel beams have rusted out, leaving the structure again in peril. One wall is rated as in “immediate danger” of collapse. Because of decay to the other walls, the loss of one side would multiply losses to the surrounding structure as well.

But, happily, some folks are hard at work to make sure the Brick House Ruins aren’t going to disappear into Lowcountry legend, but rather last for generations to come. Remember those “four boys and four girls” Edward J. Jenkins spoke of in the 1920s? In 1976, Jenkins descendants joined to form the Brick House Trust. Although concerns about the structure’s stability stretched back into the 1980s, the current project dates only to 2012. State and federal grants helped the Trust and its friends to fund an assessment of the site and a feasibility study for saving it.

With preservation deemed possible, the Preservation Society of Charleston, the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Trust worked to fund engineers to design a solution; notably the house was made one of PSC’s “Seven to Save” at that time. With $10,000 raised, engineers were able to devise a series of clamps and braces that will tie the walls together. Not only is this system a cost-effective use of funds, it requires no drilling into the structure and is completely reversible.

Not just clamps and bolts: It’s organization that has brought things together thus far. In March of this year, Brick House Ruins Preservation was registered as a non-profit to handle the final phase of the project. The Jenkins family has raised well over $20,000 to implement the engineers’ plans and the National Trust for Historic Preservation has awarded the project $2,150.

The well-respected Richard Marks Restorations is standing by, ready to complete the work; if they can start in early 2018, it should be done in three to four months. Fittingly, project supervision will be by Simons Young Associates, under the keen eyes of Jenkins descendent Simons Young. Simons’s grandmother, the late and much beloved Elizabeth Jenkins “Liz” Young, was a longtime preservationist and remembered growing up in the house as a little girl, relating stories to this paper several years ago.

Though the land is privately held, the family has allowed its use by the Edisto Island Preservation Society, the PSC and even hosted special events for first responders and high school reunions. But until the building is stabilized, visitors can only view the home from a distance, limiting the ability of visitors to experience fully the historic landmark.

To that end, Brick House Ruins Preservation is asking for your generous financial assistance; details are boxed nearby. We encourage all Mercury readers who can help to do so as we enter this season of giving. All of us benefit when our history is preserved and we have no time to lose if we want to keep the remains of this remarkable Huguenot home. Further, we know that if there is any sure human constant in our Holy City that is as true and reliable as the tides, it is the charity and generosity of the Lowcountry’s ladies and gentlemen.

 

 

Checks made payable to Brick House Ruins Preservation, Inc., may be sent to

Rutledge Young

Chairman of the Board, Brick House Ruins Preservation, Inc.,

70 Tradd St.

Charleston, SC 29401

 

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