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Foundation Matters

The Century Service Station at 80 Ashley Avenue

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

Undated photograph of Cantwell’s Grocery at No. 80 Ashley Avenue, HCF archives collection

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.”

Harry O’Neill, president of Economy Oil Company, undated photograph, South Carolina Historical Society Collection

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.

Interior of 80 Ashley Ave, May 2023, before brick repair and stabilization

Interior, 80 Ashley Ave, Aug 2023, after brick repair and stabilization

Interior, May 2023

Interior, Aug 2023

80 Ashley, exterior. February 2023.

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.

18 responses to “The Century Service Station at 80 Ashley Avenue”

  1. judith Mihalko Mueller says:

    I live at 61 Ashley Ave and Beaufain. My husband and I have so admired this historic building and felt something need to be done to preserve this unique property. I was so happy to see that you were able to purchase this for future generations to see our history.

  2. Mr. Antony M. Merck says:

    Congratulations on purchasing, stabilizing and eventually the restoration of this building that so many have passed and admired over the years. Now for the hard part: adaptive use in the present. Press on and please keep us posted on developments. Tony

  3. Judy Hines says:

    When I moved back to Charleston in 2000/ I had a fleeting infatuaiton with the service station property as an adjunct to the house and the house next door which was then for sale. I envisioned combining the two properties and having the most beautful garden/ using the wonderful brick walls as spaces for dining and entertaining , both indoors and outdoors, and expanding the living space of the house next to it. Unfortunately, I was warned that there would likely be oil contamination and the need for environmental clean up which would make the project prohibitively expensive. When I go by, I look wistfully at what might have been. I am so glad the foundation has acquired and improved the property.

  4. Elizabeth Bowles says:

    Exceptional work! What a shame that two neighbors were able to prevent the establishment of a small wine bar and gardn center, thus depriving the rest of the neighborhood.

  5. Elizabeth Bowles says:

    Exceptional work! What a shame that two neighbors were able to prevent the establishment of a small wine bar and garden center, thus depriving the rest of the neighborhood.

  6. Alexander Lyons says:

    I remember riding by this place in 1988, while a college student and the College Of Charleston, and thinking about what this building could have been used for. Thanks for enlightening me.

  7. Tom Mclaughlin says:

    Brings back many memories of stopping there for gas and getting ice from the ice chest that was on the right hand corner of the building. I grew up in what my dad referred to as the Northwest Section, now known as Wagner Terrace. My dad (1910) grew up as did his brothers & sisters on the east end of Wentworth at 18 Wentworth, his grandfathers and my great grandfather’s home from the 1850’s.

  8. Donald O'Neill says:

    Harry O’Neill was my grandfather’s brother, and Antoinette Barbot O’Neill (“Nettie”) was my great grandmother!

    Don O’Neill

  9. PC Coker says:

    From my recollection the frame building that stood on this property prior to the current one was moved to Greenhill St. where it still is. The current congressman from Lexington, Joe Wilson, grew up there. Can anyone substantiate this?

  10. Bonnie Collier says:

    As more cities continue to tear down the old and erase history, The Historic Charleston Foundation is an exceptional example of what preservation can do for future generations and the good of an entire city. More communities should take note of the foundation’s visions and follow suit!

  11. John Strickland Sr. says:

    Having a brother graduate from the Citadel about 1959, and then 2 sons graduate from College of Charleston, I think in 1991 and 1994, we still frequent the Charleston area as often as possible. Seeing the Phillips station brought back a lot of thoughts from my past 50 years in the petroleum business. Yes, there are a lot of stories to tell and my suggestion would be to see first if the Phillips Petroleum Company would be interested in being a part of that restoration in a couple of ways. The petroleum industry doesn’t have as much history as Charleston, but it has a lot of history just as your research points out in the article in this email, not just about the buildings, but the people and events. I will be glad to assist you in any way to discuss and possibly contact Phillips for you. This also could work to add some potential new members for you, that are past or current petroleum participants. The industry has been good for them and they should participate in this, and possibly other restoration projects. Please let me know and we will be in Charleston sometime between now and Thanksgiving if you would like to discuss. Not looking any fee, just interested in preserving the Charleston history and the petroleum industry for knowledge and enjoyment for everyone. Good luck in this project. Call if you want to discuss. John Strickland Sr. cell 919-705-4108 We really enjoy Charleston, don’t let it get messed up.

  12. AL MOLONY says:

    I was born at 172 Wentworth Street in 1930. As,a child, I hung out at the station and once in a while, Tom would let me pump the tanks. Many memories of that place

  13. Jessica [email protected] says:

    Enjoyed reading this

  14. Wilton Renew says:

    No mention of the Selvy’s??? The salvage run at Phillips 66 service station for a long time they were all members of the salvation army band

  15. Emmie Hay Alexander Hancock says:

    My father, Frank Seabrook Hay, owned this property for a time during the 1960s and 70s as part of Hay Oil Company. He branded the station as Philips 66 as shown in one of these photos. I’m glad to see that it is being preserved. He also owned a station at Meeting and Calhoun as well as other properties around the city and county.

  16. John Drawdy says:

    Fascinating and informative. Thank you.

  17. Linda & Terry Smith says:

    Interesting history of this property! This is an example of mixed use neighborhoods that is well worth reviving!

  18. Rhonda morris says:

    I grew up across the street at 73 Ashley Ave. I could look out my bedroom window and watch my nanny cross the street to buy me Penny bubble gum. Her name was Virginia. She was friends with the old man that ran the station. Virginia’s husband used to go around the city with his mule and vegetable wagon selling vegetables. It’s a hard to believe this wasn’t not so long ago. 1965 to be exact. I always loved this gas station and have admired the architecture. So thrilled that it’s been preserved.

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