Written By Eleanor Smythe
Ansonborough (and Anson Street, of course) was named for Captain George Anson, a British Naval officer assigned at age 26 with his own command to defend Charles Town and its environs from pirates. He served in this capacity from 1724 to 1735. In 1726, Anson purchased approximately 64 acres of land that later became known as Ansonborough. Legend has it that Anson won the money for the land in a card game. Anson went on to a successful career in the British Navy, becoming the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1751 and Admiral of the Fleet in 1761. He married Lady Elizabeth Yorke in England, and while they had no children, Captain Anson's name lives on through Ansonborough.
In the mid-1730s, Anson interlaced his estates with streets named after himself and his vessels, and in 1746 he had plans drawn up for a 25-lot borough to be laid out in the western portion of his lands and began selling them off. In 1758, the eastern portion was sold to Thomas Gadsden's son, Christopher Gadsden, who proceeded to fill in the marsh lands and build the little village of Middlesex. (Yes, this is the Revolutionary leader Christopher Gadsden of "Don't Tread On Me" fame.) Ansonborough developed rapidly and the South Carolina Society acquired a number of lots (hence the name Society Street); by 1768, all of the land was said to be filled with fine homes. These homes were built as proper "town" houses with large gardens in which wealthy plantation owners could escape malaria season, and where wealthy ship owners could pass time while keeping an eye on the Cooper River Wharves. Skilled tradesmen, artisans, and shopkeepers moved into the quiet suburban neighborhood and as it prospered it gradually blended into the rest of the city. Ansonborough, with its grand homes and flowered lawns, was a peaceful, perfect suburb.
According to the Preservation Society of Charleston's Halsey Map, the 1830s was Charleston's Decade of Fire, with 15 large, damaging fires in less than ten years. The worst, by far, was the fire of 1838, which leveled "at least one-fourth of the centre of our beautiful and flourishing city," nearly 150 acres at the heart of the commercial district.
More than 500 properties burned, at least 1100 buildings altogether - dwellings, tenements, boarding houses, stores, churches, workshops, kitchens, stables and sheds.
While most buildings erected during this time were built of brick, affordable frame buildings began to go up again in the burned district, and regulations declaring them "public nuisances" to be demolished or fire-proofed, were never enforced.
In 1838 the "Act for Rebuilding the City of Charleston" was passed and with loans from the original Bank of South Carolina, many of these homes were rebuilt.
By the mid-twentieth century, most of the structures in Ansonborough were dilapidated, unsound, and crumbling; many were abandoned and in danger of being demolished. However, restoration and renovation are deeply embedded in Charleston's history, and Ansonborough's slum conditions were simply a new challenge for our preservationists. Historic Charleston Foundation, founded in 1947, refused to let Ansonborough die. The Foundation rose to the occasion with an experiment that not only transformed the neighborhood of Ansonborough, but also pioneered a preservation program that has been copied throughout the United States to restore not just historic buildings, but entire neighborhoods.
One of the first to buy a home under the Ansonborough Rehabilitation Project was Gordon Langley Hall, an English author of social biographies who had moved to New York and befriended monied actresses and artists. As an eccentric, Gordon was reportedly accepted into Charleston's Southern gentry--even if at arm's length. His welcome was revoked, however, after he underwent one of the first sex-reassignment surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1968. Now Dawn Langley Hall, the English transplant further scandalized still-segregated Charleston by falling in love with a young black mechanic, John-Paul Simmons. They married in her restored Ansonborough home at 56 Society Street (the subsequent home, by the way, of our own beloved author Josephine Humphreys).
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