Posted: September 7, 2023
On the corner of Ashley Avenue and Wentworth Street, a small, brick structure with nearly a century of history has been vacant for nearly 35 years. Abandoned since 1988, Historic Charleston Foundation purchased the property in order to preserve an important corner commercial building. At the Foundation, we believe that historic preservation extends beyond brick and mortar; each property has a story to tell.
The Early Years
To tell the story of 80 Ashley Avenue, we called our friend Brittany Lavelle Tulla at BVL Historic Preservation for research assistance. The brick structure that we see today was originally built in 1929, but earliest records uncovered by Brittany and her team date to 1908 when Cleo L. and William J. Cantwell lived in a two-story single house at 80 Ashley Avenue and as early as 1915, Cantwell’s Grocery occupied the ground floor. In 1916, the Cantwells sold the property to Abbie L. Moore, who used it as a rental. In a 1925 advertisement, a local realtor described 80 Ashley Ave as an “excellent location for a filling station” and by 1929, Moore sold it to Economy Oil Company, one of the largest independent distributors of “high grade gasoline” in South Carolina at the time.
In 1929, the president of Economy Oil Company was Harry J. O’Neill (1892-1952), who became a successful businessman after founding the insurance firm Heyward & O’Neill with business partner, DuBose Heyward in 1909. By 1913, the firm dissolved due to Heyward’s “demands in literary work” and the business partners went their separate ways. DuBose Heyward went on to publish Porgy in 1925 and by April 19, 1929, Harry, and Economy Oil, submitted a request to demolish the single house and erect a “filling station at 80 Ashley Avenue.”
Not only was Harry’s business partner the famed author, DuBose Heyward, but his sister was Elizabeth O’Neill Verner (1883-1979), a legendary artist and early preservationist in Charleston. Elizabeth and the sibling’s aunt, Antoinette Barbot O’Neill, were vocal in the preservation movement in Charleston, often fighting the demolition of old buildings for the construction of filling stations – makes you wonder about the conversation around the family at the time! For example, within the year, Antoinette and Susan Pringle Frost (founder, Preservation Society of Charleston) protested the construction of a filling station around the corner, at the intersection of Rutledge Ave and Montagu Street, calling it “a shocking invasion of a most attractive residential section.”
Economy Oil Company constructed a Colonial Revival-style station in 1929 that comprised a one-story office with a connecting garage bay. According to the News & Courier, “ancient bricks caressed by hands of time” were used to construct the new station, which they called Charleston’s “latest gasoline haven.” Built using historic brick, the station also featured brownstone sills, wooden sash windows, a bell-cast roof and jack arches – with most materials salvaged from other historic properties. The newspaper referred to the old masonry as “adapting the charm of old Charleston to a highly modern use.” (News & Courier, May 18, 1929)
The Century Service Station (1929-1988)
In July of 1929, The Century Service Station formally opened and was operated by the Glover-Pinckney Tire and Battery Company. Century Service Station was named for its history-inspired design and century-old materials, embracing the motto “100 years old in design but up to the minute in quality and service.” That year, a 23-year-old Black gas station attendant, Rufus “Tom” Thompson German (1907-1992) was hired as one of the station’s first workers and would remain on site for decades, before eventually becoming its operator in 1942. “Thompson estimates his clientele as being about 95% white. About half are customers of long standing and most trust his judgement in taking care of their automobiles. Thompson said a [Black man] need have no difficulty in dealing with white patrons. All it takes is courtesy and service, he explained.” (News & Courier, September 19, 1948)
After the return of former owner Donald Condit Davis (1912-2007) from service in WWII, Tom was demoted to assistant manager of Century Service Station and he eventually moved on to become a well-known reverend and elder of several churches in the area from the 1950s until his death in 1992. The Century Service Station changed ownership and management several times before falling into the hands of preservationist, Arden Ball Howard (1915-2004), in 1978. Prior to this purchase, Howard was known for fighting to protect the historic fire tower near Meeting and Queen streets and, according to her son, Demi Howard, she was a close friend of Frances Edmunds, founder of Historic Charleston Foundation.
Howard closed Century Service Station upon purchase and in 1982, sold the property to her son, Demi. Under his ownership, he re-roofed the northern bays and added a second floor and stairs to the interior of the main structure. Demi claimed that the “whole building reeked of oil” despite the building not being used as a service station since 1978, and eventually closed his solar panel business and vacated the property in 1988.
80 Ashley Avenue, Today
After 35 years of vacancy, and despite significant deterioration, the service station remains a well-preserved and exceptional example of a Colonial-Revival gas station in Charleston, symbolizing the City’s evolving building inventory in the pre-WWII period and early preservation efforts to maintain the character of historic neighborhoods. In 2023, Historic Charleston Foundation purchased 80 Ashley Avenue through its Edmunds Endangered Property Fund to stabilize and preserve the property before selling it to a preservation-minded buyer with protections in place. Since May, the Foundation has conducted emergency masonry stabilization repairs that included repointing areas with severe mortar loss, replacing missing brick, and rebuilding the two interior garage bay arches. With stabilization work complete, the Foundation will move to replacing slate tiles and making other minor repairs to the roof.
Very special thank you to Foundation friend, Brittany Lavelle Tulla and her team at BVL Historic Preservation Research for diving deep to tell this story.