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FLAT ROCK — Flat Rock's history has been well documented in books, stories and newspaper columns for decades. Now the village is on the verge of being recognized as a large historic district.
An updated nomination and boundary adjustment of a National Register designation approved 41 years ago is expected to be approved soon by the National Park Service.
Nominated in 1973, the original Flat Rock Historic District application contained a fraction of the detail the new nomination boasts. The 1973 district nomination, one of the first in North Carolina, focused on "the big beautiful estate homes and drew a big line around them with just a dot or two of documentation," said Connie Backlund, who since her retirement as the chief ranger of the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site has led the Historic Flat Rock effort to fully document the village's rich architectural and cultural history.
State Historic Preservation officer Kevin Cherry signed off on the updated nomination on Dec. 1. It's now pending at the National Park Service.
"All is done except the final review," Backlund told the Village Council last month. "The state is the initial and primary reviewer. The National Park Service is the keeper of the list."
The new report documents hundreds of historic properties. It's the product of a stunning load of research, study and interviews, covering 430 pages and listing every property, whether historically significant or not. Clay Griffith of Acme Preservation Services in Asheville, called it the most complicated nomination form he had ever worked on, Backlund said.
The period of significance dates from 1827 to 1964, so many homes thought of as modern and quite ordinary are listed in the nomination.
"If it was built in that time then it can be contributing," Backlund said. "It has to maintain its integrity. In other words, it cannot have been messed up."
Historic Flat Rock President Bill Humleker praised Backlund's work and pointed out that the nomination culminates two decades of toil by a core of dedicated Historic Flat Rock members.
"Connie Backlund has been a wonderful godsend for us, and deserves more credit than anyone else," he said. The nonprofit organization has for 20 years devoted thousands of hours researching and managing the project and has raised the money to pay for the consultant. "And someone had to keep the fires burning under the very long, and sometimes excruciatingly slow bureaucratic process," Humleker said. "The 'someone' is and has been Historic Flat Rock."
Backlund and the Village Council emphasized that the historic district overlay brings no authority over homeowners. Even if their home is historic, homeowners can change the inside and outside or even demolish it.
"If you're a private homeowner and you do anything with your home with private money it has no teeth," she said. "There's just the hope and encouragement that you acknowledge you have an amazing property and you want to preserve it."
"The only way it would have teeth is if you as a village chose down the road to do something like the city of Hendersonville and establish a historic district that would require to do work a certificate of appropriateness," she told the Village Council.
If the state wanted to widen a road the historic district would come into a play.
"Let's say it's state money," she said. "It's a pretty 'work together' sort of thing. Even then it just means you should consult. That just means you should talk about it and you should consider it."
Council members praised Backlund's report.
"This has been worked on for something like 20 years," Councilman Don Farr said. "She volunteered to jump in the middle of it and was able to get done what several people have not been able to do in about 20 years."
From long descriptions of highly significant homes like Beaumont, Dunroy and Chanteloup to one-sentence sketches of homes built after 1964, the document represents a huge labor of love by the Historic Flat Rock volunteers and Griffith, the consultant who drafted the nomination.
The documentation of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic site, for instance, includes a total of 35 buildings, outbuildings and other structures — contributing and noncontributing —from the original 1838 house built by Christopher Gustavus Memminger to a "modern one-story, side-gable public restroom facility" built in 2008.
Starting with Alston Drive and ending with Woodhaven Drive, the Historic District nomination contains a narrative summary, a 42-page summary of significance, a five-page bibliography, four pages listing more than 100 people Griffith interviewed and 28 photos. The inventory records 1,575 homes, barns and other structures within the boundary of the district. "Of this number, there are 610 contributing resources, including 537 buildings, forty-five structures, twenty-two objects, and six sites," Griffith said. "The 963 non-contributing resources consist of 903 buildings, fifty-nine structures, and three objects."
Here are excerpts from the narrative summary:
"The 1973 National Register designation of the Flat Rock Historic District encompassed the largest and most important nineteenth-century estates and historic buildings associated with the formation of a summer resort by Low Country rice planters from South Carolina," the report says. "Among the earliest districts listed in North Carolina, the Flat Rock Historic District reflects the standards of documentation for its time and did not include a full survey of historic properties within the district. The original nomination identified twenty-eight contributing resources and the site of Diamond in the Desert, which burned in 1960. Twenty-seven of the recorded properties in the original nomination remain extant; the Trenholm-Rhett House was demolished in the late 1970s. The architectural significance of the Flat Rock Historic District derived from the ambitious summer houses and handsome estates of prominent Charleston families, who brought the fashionable architectural styles of the prosperous port city to their rural mountain retreat. The statement of significance for the Flat Rock Historic District addressed the political and social interconnectedness of the early families to establish the first estates and summer houses in Flat Rock, who were among the wealthy rice planter elite of South Carolina that sought to escape the heat and disease of Low Country summers. The history of the community as a health resort and recreation destination, however, was undocumented in the original nomination.
"Beginning in the late 1990s, a comprehensive survey of all properties within the district boundary was begun, along with extensive additional research and interviews. The present nomination synthesizes the information compiled in the intervening years into a full inventory of resources located within the original district boundary, an evaluation of their contributing or non-contributing status, and a close examination of the boundaries. The full inventory records 1,575 resources located within the boundary of the district. Of this number, there are 610 contributing resources, including 537 buildings, forty-five structures, twenty-two objects, and six sites. The 963 non-contributing resources consist of 903 buildings, fifty-nine structures, and three objects.
"The period of significance begins with the construction, in 1827, of Charles Baring's Mountain Lodge [Photo 2], the first summer place established by Charleston family in Flat Rock for seasonal use. Baring was soon followed by other wealthy Low Country families—King, Lowndes, Pinckney, Memminger, and others—seeking a retreat from the unhealthy conditions of their rice plantations along the coast of South Carolina. Through the nineteenth century, Flat Rock grew as a popular summer resort for a close-knit group of families from the Charleston area, but the Civil War brought about the end of their hegemony with the end of slave labor and the decline of rice production. Later generations of the early families and new owners established new patterns of settlement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as they began to subdivide the large estates among family members or for sale. As Flat Rock lost some of its exclusivity in the early twentieth century, visitors slowly began to make Flat Rock a new kind of summer destination with modern inns, clubs, camps, and retreat grounds intermingled with large, surviving estates. The period of significance ends in 1964, with the continued growth and development of Flat Rock as a popular summer destination and residential community.
"Large expanse of exposed granite visible on both sides of Greenville Highway is the natural rock outcropping from which the area took its name. The visible section of the rock on the east side of Greenville Highway is located on the north side of Village Center Drive. It is relatively flat and surrounded by open, grassy areas. The outcropping served as a ceremonial ground of the Cherokee before white settlement and functioned as a natural landmark for travelers. The first recorded use of the term "Great Flat Rock" to refer to the outcropping was made by geographers in public records dating from 1807.
"The rock areas visible on the west side of the highway have been built upon and altered. This is location of the Richard I'On Lowndes House (2661 Greenville Highway), which he called "the Rock," and the Flat Rock Playhouse (78 Thomas Wolfe Drive).
"Currently part of the Flat Rock Playhouse complex, the two-story side-gable house was built around 1884 for Richard I'On Lowndes on land he leased from his father, Richard Henry Lowndes."
The new report enlarges the boundary of the previous historic district to take in historic properties and trims the boundary to eliminate "a number of areas from the historic district where there has been a total loss of historic integrity, typically due to new construction." Examples of areas eliminated include five streets in Beaumont Estates and the 1980s Woodhaven subdivision, which are noncontributing.
The updated Flat Rock Historic District meets National Register criteria in the category of Entertainment/Recreation because Flat Rock developed as "a significant antebellum summer colony founded by wealthy rice planter families from the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia," Griffith wrote. "A tight-knit enclave of prominent families from Charleston, South Carolina, regularly decamped to their Flat Rock estates during the summer season to escape the heat and pestilential diseases of Low Country plantations, which led to the community being referred to as 'Little Charleston of the Mountains.' The summer residents enjoyed a range of social functions and recreational activities during the season in Flat Rock. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, as improved transportation routes made Flat Rock less isolated, a broader range of seasonal residents and tourists came to stay at one of the area inns or mid-twentieth century motels, participate in a religious conference or retreat at Bonclarken, or send their children to summer camp here. While Flat Rock has a greater number of permanent residents in the modern day, the roots of the original summer resort remain in place, and the community continues be a popular destination for tourists and visitors."