NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — In the almost 20 years since the Charleston Naval Base was shuttered in a round of base closings, thousands of jobs have returned and aviation has replaced the Navy as the Charleston area’s pre-eminent employer.
Now, attention is turning to saving the officers’ houses on the old sprawling base in North Charleston. A number of those homes — including the Admiral’s Quarters, dating to 1905 — have not been occupied since the base closed its gates in 1996.
The city is working on a plan with the Base Redevelopment Authority to restore the admiral’s house, listed on the Preservation Society of Charleston’s “Seven to Save” list of significant sites, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said.
Title to the officers housing section of the base has passed to North Charleston as part of a land swap earlier this year giving another section of the base to the state for an intermodal rail terminal.
Under the plan, the base chapel, about a mile away, would be moved near the Admiral’s Quarters. The quarters could provide lodging upstairs and event space on the first floor as a venue for weddings and ship crew reunions, the mayor said. The city recently completed renovation of another house nearby for receptions and small meetings.
There are about 50 structures in the officers’ quarters area. Summey said 40 can be preserved, and he would like to see another 30 or so residential units built to blend into the neighborhood. The plan is still conceptual, and there has been no cost estimates.
Renovating the old housing has been slow in coming because when the base closed, the priority was on jobs.
There are 5,000 civilian jobs on the old base now compared to about 7,000 when the base was open, Summey said, adding that had not the base closed, the city might never have tried to lure the aeronautics industry. Boeing now operates a massive 787 assembly plant in North Charleston. It employs 6,000 people.
“With Boeing coming in, we’re way ahead of where we were,” Summey said.
Perhaps no one would like to see the Admiral’s Quarters renovated more than 96-year-old Peach Boswell, who lived there for a time when her father, Rear Adm. William Henry Allen, commanded the base and three naval districts from 1937 through 1942.
When he arrived, there were about 200 workers at the shipyard. When he left, there were 20,000, she said.
“It was huge,” Boswell said. “They were spitting out destroyers like crazy.”
When World War II broke out, activity was hectic around the base, but there was no worry about being attacked, she recalled in a recent interview. “You know Charleston. We say this can never happen to us,” she said.
But she still regrets the base closing.
“It hurt me very much. When they took the Navy out, they took out the lifeblood of Charleston,” she said. “I grew up Navy; that’s all I ever knew.”