View Full Version : With 200 years of history, The Arsenal hub of activity

01-29-06, 08:33 AM
With 200 years of history, The Arsenal hub of activity
BY LORI YOUNT, The Beaufort Gazette
Published Sunday, January 29, 2006

BEAUFORT -- In more than 200 years of history, much of that time housing the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery, The Arsenal's mildewing yellow walls haven't suffered a single scar from enemy fire.

But they have housed countless dances.

"It's a great place for a party," said Maxine Lutz of Historic Beaufort Foundation, the organization that oversees The Arsenal and The Beaufort Museum.

Lutz, who lives near The Arsenal's location on Craven Street, said her family sometimes sits outside in the yard on weekends to listen to the sound of the bands coming from wedding receptions in the historic building.

Since the completion of its original construction in 1799, The Arsenal has housed military units, parties, offices, civic functions and, in the 20th century, the museum, said Evan Thompson, director of Historic Beaufort Foundation.

"The only one that's missing today is the active military presence since the National Guard moved out (in July 1963)," he said.

The Arsenal was built to house a federally-mandated militia and serve as an armory. But Beaufort residents found its spacious courtyard and accommodating wings the perfect place for peaceful activities, especially after the militia was disbanded for a few years after the Civil War.

In 1867, a United Methodist Church minister documented The Arsenal as what could be the first place where blacks voted in the United States. That occurred when a black militia group, the Washington Light Infantry, took the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery's place, Thompson said.

Unfortunately, tensions ran high during the November elections and Capt. Robert Smalls "knocked a man down" during the election process, according to the minister. But there was great significance in that the vote took place in a building that had been used as a hall of justice given by a master to a slave.

The Arsenal served as the Beaufort Courthouse from 1881 to 1884 while a new one was built.

During this period, Beaufort residents realized the social potential of The Arsenal. Minstrel shows, plays, carnivals and church fundraisers were held there. The 1852 second-story gallery addition, which now houses the museum, was a nice place for theatrical productions -- a stage was there until at least World War I, Thompson said.

Its thick walls, a mix of tabby foundation and brick, were some of the only ones left in standing in Beaufort after the fire of 1907, and residents gravitated there for an emergency mass meeting.

In World War I, The Arsenal was converted into the Sojourner's Club, where Marines taking a break from Parris Island could find a place to sleep, get a hot meal or coffee, play sports, shoot pool, write letters or just hang out.

During the club's swanky opening night in September 1917, "the boys of North and South fraternized together here, all the old sectional differences having been forgotten in their common struggle for the suppression of militarism and autocratic government," according to an optimistic article in The Beaufort Gazette.

Today, the Historic Beaufort Foundation rents the building for wedding receptions, civic gatherings, and University of South Carolina Beaufort lifelong learning classes with historical themes, Thompson said. The museum, established in 1939, draws about 6,000 visitors annually.

Throughout its social and military history, The Arsenal has suffered many states of disrepair, including now, Thompson said. The tabby foundation sucks up water, easily mildewing the structure.

The historical foundation recently received a federal Save America's Treasures grant to aid a

$500,000 restoration of the building. Most of the work will be cosmetic, Thompson said, including repairing leaks, reworking the pebble and concrete courtyard of the 1960s with brick and more grass, and placing a wooden flagpole in its original place near the entrance gate.

Thompson said the foundation plans to hire experts to determine the original color of the walls, instead of the yellow it was restored to in the 1990s, and to replace the windows with historically accurate nine-over-nine panes.

Contact Lori Yount at 986-5531 or lyount@beaufortgazette.com. To comment on this story, please go to beaufortgazette.com.