Run-down 19th-century Charleston house sells for $651K, to be saved instead of razed
preservation-admin , October 8, 2022
Old City Builders of Charleston plans to renovate the dilapidated house at 34 Percy St., which a consulting engineer earlier this year said was not worth saving. Brad Nettles/Staff
A consulting engineer this year all but wrote the obituary for a dilapidated 19th-century house on the Charleston peninsula.
Now, the weathered and tilting structure is destined to be saved after a preservationist builder stepped in and bought the run-down home for $651,000.
In February, consulting engineer Russell Rosen of Rosen & Associates inspected the two-story single house at 34 Percy St. and wrote in a report: “Multiple sections of the floors and ceilings have collapsed. There are significant openings in the walls and roof.”
He deemed the boarded-up, overgrown building unsafe. The city Fire Department affixed a safety marker on the structure to notify rescue personnel not to enter.
“Based on our observations, very little, if any original fabric can be salvaged or incorporated in a renovation,” Rosen said. “Our opinion is that the building must be demolished.”
The Preservation Society of Charleston disagreed and encouraged further examination of the home to stave off its proposed fate.
“While the property has undergone insensitive alterations, the building still retains its characteristic single- house form, as well as a significant amount of historic material,” said Erin Minnigan of the Preservation Society of Charleston.
“This house is an early survivor along Percy Street and contributes to the historic character of the streetscape and neighborhood at large,” she said. “Having seen many examples of buildings in similar or worse conditions successfully rehabilitated, we encourage further study of options for the building’s preservation.”
The demolition proposal never made it to the Board of Architectural Review, which endeavors to save historic structures throughout the city whenever possible.
Cameron Glaws (right), co-owner of Old City Builders, looks over renovation plans for the house at 34 Percy St. with his design coordinator Paige Ashworth as Glaws’ wife, Kimberly (left), looks on. Brad Nettles/Staff
The request was pulled before the board could consider it, then a “For Sale” sign showed up on the property.
Not long afterward, developer Cameron Glaws of Old City Builders, who specializes in renovating historic peninsula properties, drove by the site and noticed it was on the market.
After checking out its bones to see what was salvageable, he decided it was worth the risk.
Shortly after the Fourth of July, he bought the run-down property where no one has lived for at least 25 years, if not longer.
“The price would have been laughable a few years ago,” Glaws said. “The way the peninsula has gained value in that area, it’s become more realistic and common now.”
Shoring it up
The 1,428-square-foot house, believed to have been built around 1885, had three bedrooms and one bathroom, as best as Glaws can determine.
He plans to transform the property into a three-bedroom, three-bathroom home to be rented out to a family in a couple of years.
His first order of business was to shore up the leaning structure to keep it from crashing into the house next door.
To alleviate the awkwardness of the consulting engineer’s calling for the structure to be demolished, Glaws reached out to Rosen & Associates for advice on shoring up the property.
“The consulting engineer was pretty accurate,” Glaws said. “This one is in pretty bad shape, but they already knew what condition the house was in, so why not ask them for help? Any house can be salvaged.”
Huge support beams now brace both sides of the failing structure, with its missing boards, tattered gutter and clipped vines dangling from the roof.
“We have it pretty much stabilized to make sure it doesn’t fall over,” Glaws said. “I suspect my neighbors are happy with what we’ve done.”
Shortly after the purchase, workers with Old City Builders cleaned out the inside of the house.
“You could definitely tell it’s been abandoned for many years,” Glaws said.
Asked why he bought something in such bad shape, Glaws said, “If done correctly, you can make a rehab like this make sense. You can make it financially viable. It’s expensive to do, but there is an investment calculus to doing the project yourself.”
He believes the final restoration project, including new plumbing and underground utilities, could approach about $750,000 — not including the original purchase price.
“We intend to rehab it as the home originally sat,” Glaws said. “It will be preservation in the strictest sense.”
Braces have been erected around the run-down house at 34 Percy St. in Charleston to keep it from falling over. Old City Builders bought the dilapidated structure in July and plans to renovate it. Brad Nettles/Staff
One of the first things Old City Builders plans to do, after analyzing the foundation and framing for structural integrity, is to insert steel I-beams under the house to lift the structure a couple of feet so work can begin on building a solid foundation.
After that, work can begin to bring it back to life.
Minnigan, with the Preservation Society, lauded the effort by Glaws and said it epitomizes that a neglected structure can be saved.
The society, she said, “is encouraged to hear about plans to restore this building as a single-family residence, which goes to show that, even after showing up on a BAR agenda for demolition, buildings in seemingly dilapidated condition can be successfully rehabilitated.”
She called plans to restore the house “the ideal outcome for preservationists in Charleston.”
“Our historic building stock is highly unique and irreplicable, and we commend the developer for taking on this project to save the structure,” Minnigan said. “We look forward to seeing 34 Percy St. brought back to life and once again contribute to the neighborhood’s character.”
Saving the past
Glaws is familiar with properties in similar states of deterioration.
In the latter part of the past decade he helped renovate the Freedman’s Cottages, a row of four one-story homes on Jackson Street built in the late 1800s on the upper peninsula. It is believed as many as 1,000 of the small houses were built in a late 19th-century version of affordable housing as residences for the city’s former enslaved citizens, as well as immigrants from Germany and Ireland.
Over time, the structures were abandoned and fell into disrepair. Many no longer exist.
One of those that does is now the office of Old City Builders, where Cameron and his wife, Kimberly, have plenty of preservation work on their plate.
The interior of the old house at 34 Percy St. in Charleston deteriorated badly after years of sitting idle. Old City Builders plans to renovate the two-story structure into a new three-bedroom house. Brad Nettles/Staff
A stone’s throw away from the Percy Street project is another renovation work by Glaws.
The rental property at Line and Coming streets is undergoing a total makeover and should be completed in the fall.
Last year, Old City Builders purchased the two-story structure at 95 Line St. and a vacant lot next to it on Coming Street for $1.8 million. Glaws has been working on it for about a year.
When finished, it will have three apartments and a storefront. A commercial tenant has not been announced.
As for the house at 34 Percy St., Glaws noted the crumbling structure is fortunate to be in the Holy City.
“In localities other than Charleston without an ingrained preservation ethic, it might get knocked down pretty easily,” Glaws said.
He knows the task of breathing new life into it will be exhaustive.
“But,” Glaws said, “it’s rewarding in and of itself. … It’s the preservation of a cultural resource.”
In a lighthearted note, he pointed to the sign placed on the building to indicate it’s a danger to go inside and he noted his business sign next to it.
“The nasty red X means everything is not OK,” Glaws said. “The sign with the white lettering means everything is going to be alright.”
Cameron Glaws, owner of Old City Builders, explains his plans for renovating the dilapidated house at 34 Percy St. on Sept. 7. Brad Nettles/Staff