Some find their passion in life early on, but few can claim to have discovered it at so tender an age as Christina Butler. The Ohio transplant, who teaches architectural history and historic preservation at the American College of Building Arts (ACBA) in Charleston, knew she wanted to work with historic buildings by age three, captivated by a TV program on restoration she watched with her parents.
Today, she is immersed in a project that owns as much cultural history as architectural, directing her students in the initial stages of restoring the decaying Hutchinson House on Edisto Island.
The small two-story home has been identified as the oldest house on the island associated with the post-Civil War African- American community. Oral histories hold that it was the residence of Henry Hutchinson, who was believed to have built and operated (1900 – 1920) the first cotton gin there owned by a black person.
The Edisto Island Open Land Trust (EIOLT) acquired the property in 2016 from a Hutchinson descendant and enlisted the aid of ACBA.
Butler, formerly an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, her alma mater, is understandably enthused.
You consider the house an ideal laboratory for your students. What is its significance?
Hutchinson House might seem like a small and simple house compared to local plantations, but it is a wonderful example of vernacular domestic architecture in a rural setting. It’s an interesting combination of salvaged materials from an earlier building and woodwork that was probably custom-cut onsite. It’s a fascinating product of its time, built during the socially and economically tumultuous times following Reconstruction. The cultural significance is what truly makes the house unique: It was constructed by Henry Hutchinson, whose family prospered during a time when many freed people struggled to obtain their own homes and make ends meet.
What do we know about Hutchinson and the community in which he lived?
We’re still working on answering those questions; there’s some discrepancy in oral history testimony and documents such as census and death records. There’s an oral tradition that Hutchinson’s grandfather was a white plantation owner, but it’s difficult to prove that sort of personal family history. Hutchinson’s death certificate lists him as “mulatto,” so that’s an example of some of the circumstantial evidence my class is working through. Oral history is subject to people’s memories and biases, but it’s invaluable for documenting minorities who were left out of the written record.
What is the specific involvement of ACBA?
The students will work to reconcile oral testimony with written documents and with the materials and character of the house itself to try to paint a fuller picture of the Hutchinson House and its creators.
The house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Had anything been done to preserve it earlier?
The National Register is an invaluable documentation tool and helps us understand what sites are significant to preserve, but it is still up to the private owner of a listed site to maintain it and use it as they see fit. Hutchinson descendants had created a nonprofit to raise awareness and encourage preservation of the house in the 1990s, but never began actual preservation work. That said, the Hutchinsons are a big part of what makes the house so important.
How would you describe the house in terms of its original design and construction?
The house has simple finishes but would have been considered large and fine for an African-American house in South Carolina in the 19th century. Today, the home’s scale and footprint are similar to its original construction. It is in a dilapidated state but retains many original features and lots of character. Renovation plans are to be announced. We know that the Trust wants to preserve the house and share it with the public in some capacity. Planning is well under way, which is necessary before any physical work can begin.
What are the principal goals of the project?
EIOLT is a land conservation group approaching a first foray into preservation of a building. They recognized early on that the house and site were important, and they’d need to understand what they had before moving forward with physical work. They’ve been amazing stewards of the house so far. They contacted us to see if we’d like to help with the project. By the end of the semester, students will have created a history report, condition assessments and preservation suggestions to guide the work moving forward. We are not general contractors, however. Through our various class initiatives, ACBA will be providing EIOLT with a documentary and visual record of the house, and preservation considerations and repair suggestions for the next phase, when the hands-on work begins. We expect completion in approximately two years.
What do you find so rewarding about it?
The house strikes a chord with so many different history and preservation groups in the Lowcountry. It’s always more meaningful to students when they have a real client and will have a role in preserving a building, instead of a hypothetical class exercise. It’s also about the story of a family who prevailed against the social odds stacked against African- Americans in the Jim Crow era. What draws me to historic preservation is that buildings are tangible examples of our past and are still relevant today. They teach us so much about social history and preferences of the past, and many were built in an age before everything was mass-produced, so they have so much inherent character and craftsmanship.
Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and books.