Bluffton restarts push to restore ex-slave’s home

12/18/2013 12:00 AM

12/17/2013 10:04 AM

The town of Bluffton has restarted its push to restore the Garvin House, the earliest-known home owned by a freed slave along the May River.

The town is accepting bids from engineers and architects for a structural assessment and preservation plan for the historically significant cabin, which should be completed in six months, according to town spokeswoman Debbie Szpanka.

The deadline for bids is Jan. 20, the first step in what town Historic Preservation Society president Nick Maxim hopes to be the restoration of the historic home.

“Of the properties out there right now, this is definitely No. 1 on our agenda,” said Maxim, who also is on the town’s Historic Preservation Commission and owns contracting firm Arkbuilt LLC.

“There are voices of concern in the community: ‘What’s going to happen? ... Is it going to continue rotting?’”

This isn’t the town’s first attempt to repair the deteriorating piece of history.

In 2009, town planners stabilized the cabin to prevent it from collapsing.

The clapboard structure was rid of termites, supported by heavy beams and covered with a tarp to protect from the rain.

The town then hired the Living History Group of Charleston to create a preservation plan and paid the consultant with a $40,000 matching grant from the S.C. Department of Archives and History, according to town documents.

Living History pitched two projects to the town that cost between $305,000 and $345,000 and would have restored the exterior and first floor of the cabin.

But the preservation push stalled because of a lack of funding, Ian Hill, a Beaufort County historic preservationist, said in 2010.

Attempts Monday to reach Hill and the Living History Group of Charleston were unsuccessful. A website registered to Living History is no longer active.

Szpanka said another study is necessary because the condition of the house has changed since 2009, and the new study would take it “several steps further. ... (It) will provide us with specific recommendations with respect to preserving the structure.

“These recommendations will be incorporated into engineered design drawings, which will allow the town to solicit bids and select a qualified contractor to complete the work.”

Szpanka said the town’s budget for the project is about $150,000, but it is seeking more money.

She said she could not say what the home would be used for once preserved.

In Oyster Factory Park, the house was built by former slave Cyrus Garvin in 1870 with materials spared when Union troops burned Bluffton seven years earlier. Garvin likely had been a slave of Joseph Baynard, whose plantation home stood on the site before being destroyed by Union flames, according to town documents.

Deed records show the house remained in the Garvin family until 1961, according to town documents.

Today chain-link fencing and orange caution tape surround the structure, which is overgrown with weeds and sags from both sides, like a warped deck of shuffled cards.

Restoring a home of such historical importance before it completely deteriorates is essential in honoring the town’s African-American heritage, said town infrastructure project manager Josh Hutchinson.

“The Garvin House is a rare treasure,” he said in an email. “Its preservation will afford our residents and visitors an opportunity to get a peek into our past and gain a better appreciation of Bluffton’s rich history.”

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