December 8, 2016 marks the 64th anniversary of the death of Thomas Mayhem Pinckney, a relatively obscure yet integral, early figure in the preservation movement in Charleston. An African American craftsman, Pinckney’s life inspired the Preservation Society to name a special committee after him in 2012. The Thomas Mayhem Pinckney Alliance is dedicated to recognizing and preserving those sites and places in the Charleston area built by, occupied by, and utilized for activities significant to the African American experience.
Pinckney was born in 1877, son of cabinetmaker Nathaniel Pinckney. Educated in Charleston’s public schools and at Clark University Night School, he trained as a stair maker with Luther Alston, another local contractor, before beginning an apprenticeship with Snelson Contracting Co., builders of the Old City Jail and the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy on Legare St.
Specializing in historic structures, Pinckney was one of the most prized artisans of his day, and he employed and trained numerous other African American tradesmen. His early work led him to start his own contracting firm where he received much of his business from Susan Pringle Frost, the founder of the Preservation Society of Charleston. Pinckney was highly skilled in hand-carved woodwork and was particularly adept at sunburst mantelpiece carvings. Some of the houses bearing his work include the Caspar Christian Schutt House at 51 East Bay, the Colonel John Ashe House at 32 South Battery, the Miles Brewton House at 27 King Street, the Pirate House at 143-145 Church Street, 48 and 100 Tradd Street, and all of Stoll’s Alley. In addition, Pinckney restored Mansfield Plantation near Georgetown and even won first place in a Grand Central Place show in New York City for a scaled wooden model of a colonial room.
Susan Pringle Frost had such a productive business relationship with Pinckney that she dubbed him her “right-hand man.” Sidney Bland, in his book Preserving Charleston’s Past, Shaping Its Future, describes Pinckney’s work as “so in scale and period that one has to be told what is not original to the house.” Frost’s encomium for Pinckney, which appeared in the News and Courier following his death in 1952, commemorated the craftsman’s profound impact on Charleston’s historic residences:
“There has passed to the higher life one who, in his day and generation made such and outstanding contribution to the preservation of the early architecture of our city which has made Charleston so noted throughout the country that I ask to pay him this tribute in your columns.
I have often been given credit for the work I did in restoring the old time architecture. But more credit should be given to Thomas M. Pinckney. He was a real artist in his work of restoration of the old time wood carvings in our splendid old homes…”
By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives at the Preservation Society
Featured Image: Portrait of Thomas Mayhem Pinckney, date and artist unknown