(VAUCLUSE, SC — July 17, 2018) Men have begun work demolishing two historic but delapidated mill village buildings in the heart of Vaucluse, SC, that along with the town’s small post office next door form a trio of iconic white clapboard buildings in the center of town that date back to 1904. Aiken County demolition permits have been issued for the two buildings and workers claim they are demolishing and “repurposing” the wood from the buildings. However, the demolition work has provoked public outcry from some of those who grew up and live in Vaucluse and view this as destruction of their mill village’s history rather than progress.
SAVE OUR HISTORY
Journalist Tony Baughman, who grew up in Vaucluse, quickly organized a Save Vaucluse effort after learning about the first building being torn down in a phone call from one of his former elementary school teachers. Almost overnight, Baughman pulled together Save Vaucluse, “a loose confederation of current and former Vaucluse residents,” in an attempt to save the historic buildings. The group has a website, Facebook page and a petition. Baughman also hastily arranged an “Emergency Preservation Rally” demonstration.
Poster board signs reading “Save Vaucluse” and “Save Our History” appeared on traffic signs throughout Vaucluse last Saturday, July 14, 2018, as part of the afternoon demonstration. Locals held signs across from the buildings in the crosshairs of demolition while others stopped by in support while Baughman live streamed their conversation. Baughman urges “Progress WITH Preservation,” development with respect for historic buildings. “I’m not against progress,” he clarifies. Baughman believes the buildings in question to be structurally sound and ripe to be renovated, an opinion not shared by the handful of demolition workers minding the site in a red pickup truck across the street. “These buildings are just sitting here, rotting, not doing anybody any good,” said one unidentified man who did identify himself as part of the demolition crew.
Behind the idled workers, the white clapboard building at the corner had been stripped to its reddish brown wood frame, with window shutters and windows still in place, save for the front of the building that remained clapboard white and the still intact asbestos diamond pattern tiled roof . According to locals, the building had served as the mill village’s grocery and general store. Later, Avondale Mills had used the building as a training facility, rewiring it and installing new polyurethane polished wood floors. The second building permitted for demolition is next door. This larger building served as a community building and housed a theater complete with a stage. Meanwhile, the small building next in line still houses Vaucluse’s beloved, diminutive post office which has survived budget cuts and a wave of post office closings, purportedly on lease to the Postal Service for very small fee, a remnant of mill village largesse. All three buildings occupying the same parcel of land are registered on the National Register of Historic Places (see the 1995 application for inclusion) as part of the Vaucluse Mill Village Historical District. The parcel of land is on Vaucluse Pond and served as popular swimming area during the mill village’s heyday and remains a popular fishing spot today.
WHO IS TEARING THEM DOWN?
After Avondale Mills’s textile mills in Graniteville and Vaucluse shuttered in 2006, developer Weldon Wyatt’s GAC, LLC purchased the parcel of land with the three iconic buildings for $10 in 2007 and public records show that GAC, LLC is still the owner. Wyatt and his company are clearly responsible for the demolitions.
Whether other developers or groups besides Wyatt are involved in the demolitions is in question. Workers are storing wood and materials removed from the buildings across the street under tarps and under lock and key within the Vaucluse mill’s barbed wire fence compound owned by Water Property Holdings, LLC, with Pete Davis of Atlanta listed as the contact on a voluntary environmental cleanup placard mounted on the fence. An Atlanta based financial entrepreneur, Davis is considered a guiding force behind redeveloping Graniteville, SC and the new Recleim recycling facility located in Graniteville’s old mill complex. Davis has been involved with Graniteville Restoration Partners LLC, and Water Property Holdings, LLC owns two dozen parcels of land in Graniteville and Vaucluse. Demolition of the mill buildings in Vaucluse would be at odds with Davis’ public statements valuing the history of the mill villages and his stated desire to “preserve and revive” them.
Baughman originally suspected the nonprofit Horse Creek Trust as being involved in the demolitions. Formed in order to allow development companies to take advantage of nonprofit grants, Horse Creek Trust is helmed by CEO Turner Simkins and has managed the restoration of Hickman Hall in Graniteville for Graniteville Restoration Partners, LLC. Simkins is also the President of Blue Beech, LLC, a development consulting firm, and was involved with the controversial Hammonds Ferry (formerly Project Jackson) mixed use development in North Augusta, SC. Speaking in late November 2017, Simkins admitted that they had been “working quietly behind the scenes for years”, and that once backers had been secured he could begin a “more visible and cooperative planning process” that would include public meetings as reported by the Aiken Standard on January 1, 2018. Horse Creek Trust’s redevelopment plans for Graniteville include buildings in Vaucluse, SC and a possible North Augusta Greeneway-style bike path connecting the two mill villages. However, the Save Vaucluse Facebook page reports that Simkins has disclaimed any prior knowledge of the Vaucluse demolitions and affirmed the goal of restoring all three buildings in public statements on Facebook.
A TENSE STAND OFF
Since the public outcry began, the sleepy single stop light main intersection in Vaucluse has been busy and tense. Locals have been dropping by to photograph the buildings before they are lost while minders from the demolition crew have been posted to discourage them or “people causing a stink.” SaveVaucluse.org signs posted on public property in town next to traffic signs have quickly disappeared. On Monday, cars and a much larger demolition crew mobbed the main intersection. Tiers of yellow tape wrapped the site and orange and black “KEEP OUT” signs were posted in multiples on the fronts of the buildings. Demolition accelerated with the crew removing the outside clapboard from the sides of the larger building and clapboard from both building fronts. Baughman, upon hearing of work starting on the second building, came down to the site with some yelling exchanged by both sides and then departed to investigate the demolition permits.
As of Tuesday, demolition work on the building had halted. A lone minder with his arms crossed leaned back on the front of a pick up truck while an unused ladder leaned against the front of the larger building. Unconfirmed reports say that Aiken County had shut down the demolition due to lack of “certified abatement” for asbestos. Whether the halt in demolition will be a turning point or just a temporary reprieve depends on whether those in opposition can maintain the outcry and whether developers who value Vaucluse’s history prevail.