Thursday, July 17, 2008

Spartanburg has gained a better reputation for historic preservation in the past ten years through the implementation of a facade renovation program for businesses downtown, the establishment of local historic districts, and the emergence of a local non-profit dedicated to renovating historic homes and increasing home ownership in historic districts.

The Preservation Trust currently focuses on the Hampton Heights Historic District, but before long it may expand into other historic neighborhoods in the city. My wife and I bought our home in Hampton Heights with the help of the Preservation Trust, which allows buyers to absorb the costs of renovations into their home's purchase price. Our house only had a few interior renovations, but other homes have been almost completely reworked. As a result, the neighborhood has undergone a dramatic shift in the past several years. Not only has the neighborhood's appearance drastically improved, but the it also has a younger face, is safer, and residents walk and bike frequently to downtown.

So with all this renewed interest in this old neighborhood (recently named by This Old House as the best neighborhood in the country to buy an old house for families), I thought I'd include a few tidbits from the collection that shed some light on the area's early history.

By the mid-19th century, most of the land currently making up HH belonged to Major A. H. Kirby, whose house sat at the top of the hill about where Bethel Methodist currently sits. That hill is still called Kirby Hill, and if you look at the Northwestern horizon from the top of that hill, on a clear day you'll see the mountains, crisp and blue. I'd love to see that whole intersection redone in a way that takes advantage of that vista. At one time, that intersection was also the site of Spartanburg's Confederate Monument, which has since been moved to Duncan Park. Kirby Hill was also the encampment grounds for the Union Army during the most tumultuous days of Reconstruction.

Major Kirby moved to Spartanburg in 1837 and the above plat shows his land in 1852. Notice that there is really only one street shown and it's labeled "Laurens Road." This refers to South Church Street, which was then (as it is now) the route from Spartanburg to Laurens. At the time this plat was first drawn, Laurens was the local gateway to the rest of the state because it was the nearest railroad terminal. The winding unpaved road that led to Laurens was notoriously difficult to travel; creeks would often flood and steep hills would become slathered with thick mud. The plat also shows some of the small streams that are still present in the Hampton Heights neighborhood in their aboriginal condition. For instance, the small branch that cuts between Carlisle Street and Brookwood Terrace is shown stretching up all the way to Church Street, as does the branch that now runs in the woods behind Cecil Court. Conspicuously absent from this plat is West Hampton Avenue, the backbone of the neighborhood. There is a clue to its future existence, though, in a stretch of a property boundary that appears to follow the current route of the street. That boundary forms a little nook that would later house the Methodist Mission that evolved into Bethel Methodist.

So the Kirby land was eventually divided up and one of the larger landholders was the Irwin family, for which another prominent street in the neighborhood is named. The Irwins ran a dairy farm and orchard in much of the neighborhood prior to its subdivision into smaller lots. These lots continued to subdivide well into the mid-twentieth century, when there were still many undeveloped lots to be had in the neighborhood.

Over time, the neighborhood filled with the range of Spartanburg society, business executives, bank clerks, government workers, mom and pop retailers, teachers, and laborers all occupied the neighborhood. The styles of their homes reflected the variety also: Queen Anne, Neoclassical, Arts and Crafts, and Revival styles all line the streets, dating from the 1880s onward.

The neighborhood continued to flourish along with downtown until the 1960s, when the textile industry began floundering, the spread of automobiles caused sprawl and less centralized downtown activity, and racial tensions scared many wealthy whites away from downtown. Also, as most of the neighborhood entered its fiftieth decade, new buyers saw little appeal in homes that seemed out of step with modern aesthetics. So the 1960s and 1970s were pretty rough on the neighborhood. Older residents held on to their old homes while generally poorer individuals and families moved in as prices dropped. Most of these residents either lacked the funds or the desire to restore a neighborhood in decay. Fortunately a wave of interest came in the 1980s that saw a small number of dedicated homeowners move into the neighborhood with an active interest in saving their historic homes. Things picked up slowly through the 1990s, and as the century turned, a wider interest blossomed and a substantial number of new homeowners moved in to restore the old homes. Today the neighborhood has a reputation as a hipper and funkier Converse Heights (a similar downtown neighborhood which fared better during the mid-century). Many of the residents are young and active and the neighborhood is still vastly more affordable than Converse Heights, despite being closer to downtown. Although there are still plenty of homes in desperate need of work, the neighborhood generally is in far less danger of neglect than in any time in the past fifty years. Hampton Heights' success story bodes very well for the revitalization of downtown, which has been an ongoing goal for the city since the 1960s. With any luck, the neighborhood's success, the continued dedication of our city leaders, and the sustained high cost of oil will determine the overall success of downtown.

High cost of oil? You bet. But I'll save that for the next post.

Those of you familiar with the neighborhood's history, let me know if there are other details I should add!


Remsen and Becca Parrish.... said...

Thank you so much, Brad, for digging into the depths of Hampton Heights to bring us a great lesson of its past. Keep up the great work!

Jim said...

Brad, I was doing a little family tree searching and came across your blog. I am James H. Kirby IV, a direct descendant of Major Augustus Hilliard Kirby. I just wanted to say that your PDF of his land was really an amazing thing to see, for me. Thanks, any other info you have on A. H. Kirby please pass on.