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The So Called “Dead House”

February 1, 2010

I hope everyone had a great weekend!  I wanted to post a previously unposted blog from my predecessor Mr. Hugh in honor of him as he begins his journey to South Africa.  He gets the credit for the Dead House info.  Very cool stuff.  Good luck Mr Hugh!

As you walk around the old Navy Base, there is one small building that stands out from the rest. It is not imposing by an architectural standard like the old Power House, but it is possibly the oldest building in North Charleston. Dead House evokes thoughts of a mausoleum of some sort. Some cemeteries have buildings where incoming coffins are temporarily stored, but there is no cemetery on the Base. Have you heard a plausible story that explains the Dead House name?

Looking at the reinforced style of the building and its materials, English bond brown bricks and old mortar, suggests that it was a powder magazine. Its location is on historically high land near the Cooper River. Marsh land between the Dead House and the Cooper River is filled land.

Nadine Parks of the Post & Courier wrote of the Dead House in an August 2004 article. She was eager for more information about an apparent magazine because so little was known about its origin, ownership, or use.

Historical surveys speculate that the building dates from the earliest colonial times. The bronze shield over the door of the Lord Proprietors seal fits with this idea, but there is no evidence of when the shield was put on the building. The shield itself has no markings on it anywhere that tell its age or maker.

The Navy called it the Dead House, and that name “Dead House” appears on an 1895 survey of the area done prior to the design of the Chicora Park on the site by Olmsted Brothers. So the building pre-dates the Navy and Chicora Park. Before that the land was a plantation. Navy Architect Randy Guy’s research identified 15 different landowners from the first land grant in 1672 through 1895. There are many periods of local history when storing powder around the fringe of Charleston would have been called for, but no specific information has yet been found. Of the land owners, one stands out. His name was Sir Edgerton Leigh. He owned the property from 1767-1771. He was the first customs officer and the first postmaster for Charleston. In his customs capacity, it is thought that he assessed a tax on gunpowder carried by arriving ships. How this possible gunpowder connection may tie into the building on the Base is unclear thus far. Graduate student Chris Ohm from the College of Charleston has been researching a number of leads about the building and time will hopefully tell us more of the story.

Mr Hugh’s own theory on the Dead House name is that it stems from the use of the old powder magazine as a temporary place to put bodies until burial was arranged. On the old plantation grounds, this building would have been the coolest place.

Any thoughts?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam permalink
    February 2, 2010 2:06 am

    Very interesting post. I know there is a dissertation at the downtown library that seemed to conclude that the construction of the building was consistent with it being a magazine. It’s amazing there is so little known about a building that is still standing today.

    • Sir Geoffrey permalink
      February 3, 2010 2:20 pm

      Very interesting and mysterious indeed!

  2. Becca permalink
    February 3, 2010 1:48 pm

    Very cool. Whereabouts is this located? Would love to check it ou.

    • Sir Geoffrey permalink
      February 3, 2010 2:20 pm

      It is at Riverfront Park. From the parking lot, walk north thru some beautiful trees, bushes and some noisette roses and you can’t miss it

  3. February 5, 2010 2:56 pm

    Thanks for the Shout out! Everything looks great.

  4. John Davis permalink
    August 15, 2011 7:40 pm

    This is a powder magazine. Check out a similar structure at fort johnson. You did not need such a massive structure to contain the dead . We will ignore the existence of the pyramids. John Davis,former director of grounds at CofC.

  5. Tracey Lewis permalink
    December 31, 2012 12:23 pm

    The property where the Charleston Naval Shipyard was located was known as Retreat Plantation. “The earliest record of Retreat was as 389 acres sold to James McKenzie of London, and was probably named by Sir Edgerton Leigh. In 1798 it was sold to James Lee and he divided it into three parts, 82 acres to Theodore Gaillard, 92 acres to Thomas Hunt, and 215 acres to Wilson Glover.” from the book “Colonel Joseph Glover (1719-1783) and His Descendants, Thirteen Generations of the Glover Family” written by James Bolan Glover, V. Published in 1996 with footnotes referencing “Rivers & Regions of Early South Carolina” by Henry A.M. Smith, Volume III, pps.81, 82

  6. June 13, 2013 8:01 pm

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