The Old Harbor Facade – Ruins of Downtown Charleston

Ever since we moved to Charleston and I first caught a glimpse of this facade structure, I have been wondering and daydreaming about what it is, was, and could have been.

photo courtesy of SC Port Authority website

photo courtesy of SC Port Authority website – this photo doesn’t do it justice, however.

This bit or ruin, remnants of a times past – it barely stands (with the assistance of beams) in the middle of the Downtown Charleston Ports Authority property parking area.

As the cruise ships come and go from the dock downtown, as people drive/bike/walk downtown, over all the years and storms and seasons – this building front tarries in its space.

As I was doing some research for work this afternoon, I clicked a link on a map that happened to take me to a little information — leading me to halt my work task entirely, and read up on the history I could on this building!

Governor Thomas Bennett (SC’s 48th Governor 1820-1822) was one of Charleston’s wealthiest plantation owners.  He owned a bit of property down by what is now the Charleston Harbor, and in 1844 he commissioned the construction of a mill for his Rice crop.  Rice was major to the Low Country since the times of the Revolution.  Important as a crop and as trade, yet it was severely labor intensive.  In 1845, Bennett’s Rice Mill opened.

The SC Port authority site says, “Of the three rice mills in Charleston, the Bennett mill was the smallest in size. However, the Bennett mill, at a capacity of 200 bushels per day, became one of the three most productive rice mills in the nation because of its location at the center of the busy waterfront.”

“At its peak, around 1860, it produced over 280,000 lbs of rice a day.  It was a steam powered mill with 11 foot ceilings, hand-dressed wood timbers, cased wooden columns and arches and cast iron interior columns.  Interior wrought iron railings were used around the different platforms.  The Classic Revival exterior did not relate to the plan of the building as it was actually two buildings connected by an engine room…. the mill was located in an industrial area that was served by rail, ships and a mill pond.   To the east of the mills, near the wharf, was the house for storing the rough rice as it came off the schooners.  From there the rice was loaded onto a tramway and brought over to the steam-powered mill.” ~ from the American Institute of Architects

Soon after the War Between the States, the rice crop/trade began to take a decline.  Still the Bennett Mill continually ran through the war and up until about 1912.  A severe hurricane in 1911 wiped out the areas Rice fields, and the interest in the crop as a industry/trade was fairly wiped out.  The Bennett family gave up ownership of the mill, and it was then in about 1924 it was made branch of the Planters Peanut & Chocolate Company as a peanut plant.

photo courtesy of AIA

photo courtesy of AIA

In 1938, a tornado took off its roof, and was declared unsafe by the City of Charleston.  In the early 1950s, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad Company bought it to use as storage, but planned to demolish it.  People of Charleston protested the idea of the demolition, but the railway didn’t want to rebuild the structure – so about 1958 the South Carolina State Port Authority became owner.

photo courtesy of AIA - believed to be taken about 1952 when the "wing" (or old 1830 sawmill) of building was demolished.

photo courtesy of AIA – believed to be taken about 1952 when the “wing” (or old 1830 sawmill) of building was demolished.

“As the building was rated one of twenty-six nationally important buildings in Charleston, HABS surveyed it in 1936 with drawings and photographs…. When the Ports Authority became the owners, in 1958, they signed a formal agreement with two local preservation groups, Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston to assume stewardship.” ~ from the American Institute of Architects

photo courtesy of AIA - rear of facade, steel beams where placed in 1960

photo courtesy of AIA – rear of facade, steel beams where placed in 1960

Less than two years later, Hurricane Donna took 2 of its walls, and shortly there after the third wall fell apart and was taken down.  This left only the front facade remaining.  The Ports Authority built a steel frame to support the front wall, and not much else has been done since.

I was so excited to find out the information and history (no matter how rough) on this landmark — but now I am even more curious why it hasn’t been restored — even back in the 1940s & 50s when it was still enough intact to really strengthen and utilize.  Kind of disheartening that it has been left….. mainly because it wasn’t a “money making” opportunity anymore.

I hope the local preservation societies can get their selves together to work on this before it is too late.


2 thoughts on “The Old Harbor Facade – Ruins of Downtown Charleston

  1. It is time that the rice mill be saved just like the west point rice mill was saved and is an income producing piece of property.The rice mill on the Ashley river is an income producing property.It will take some determined citizens to get it started and see it through.

  2. Thank you for the history lesson! I’d seen the facade last month when we’d gone there for a cruise and wondered what it had been.

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