The construction of a new hotel could destroy a valuable archaeological site.

By Meghan Overdeep
July 17, 2018
Charleston French Quarter
Credit: Sean Pavone/Getty Images

Preservationists are worried that time is running out for an irreplaceable piece of Charleston's past.

The late Pinckney mansion was built by Charles and Eliza Lucas Pinckney on the corner of East Bay and Market streets in 1746. The home, which predated the Miles Brewton House by about a generation, was considered the grandest in Charleston. According to The Post and Courier, "the Pinckneys enjoyed a status as close to royalty as it got in the young colonial city." And their influence was a lasting one. Later generations of the family would reportedly rank among the "finest statesmen to emerge from South Carolina."

The home was one of the city's first with major architectural flourish, and it had an immense impact on the aesthetic of the burgeoning metropolis. "After this house was built, all of a sudden townhouses became much more glamorous, with everyone trying to keep up with the Pinckneys," architectural historian and preservationist, Ralph Harvard, told The Post and Courier. "No houses had marble decoration in the 18th century except this one."

But it wasn't long for this world. The Pinckney mansion was badly damaged in the great fire of 1861, and it was razed a few years later. Most recently, the land at 235 East Bay St. was home to Molly Darcy's Irish Pub & Restaurant. That building has since been demolished, and now plans are underway for a new hotel.

The problem, local preservationists say, is that construction on the hotel could proceed without archaeological efforts to discover what clues the land holds about the city's rich past.

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And it's not just signs of the grand mansion that might be hidden in the soil: the site could hold valuable evidence from the slave quarters as well.

What activists need is an archaeology ordinance, though one has yet to be presented to the Charleston City Council.

Katherine Pemberton of the Historic Charleston Foundation is one of many people working towards such an ordinance. She told The Post and Courier that she'd previously tried to convince the owner of the former site of Charleston Cooks to allow for archaeological investigation.

"I think this (Pinckney mansion) site — and the former Charleston Cooks site — are prime examples of the need for an archaeological ordinance," she told the newspaper. "These were both early sites on the colonial waterfront that we need to know more about."

Harvard explained to The Post and Courier that earlier construction methods did not do as much damage to the city's archaeology because their foundations weren't very deep. However, that won't be the case with this new hotel.

"Until the mid-20th century most sites were safe. They didn't dig down so deeply," Harvard said. "This Pinckney site will be destroyed. You can never find it. It will be gone. It's not like it will be down there for later. It's arguably the most important site in colonial Charleston."