Castle Pinckney is evocatively situated within the view shed of one of the nation’s most historic and well preserved cities, yet its history and significance is virtually unknown to the citizenry at large. Respecting the natural beauty of the site along with the historic integrity of the fort, the design challenge is to identify a use for this former island fort, Confederate prison and now defunct lighthouse station. More ambitiously, the students should investigate how the preservation of this historically significant fort, can provoke a profound rethinking of our current conventions about preservation, design, community, environment and heritage tourism.
In today’s professional practice, responsible design is increasingly acknowledging the layers of architectural memory to provide continuity in our fast changing culture. Existing and historic buildings and sites are an expanding segment of architectural practice. Such projects demand an insightful response to physical and social contexts. The goal of this competition is to explore how collaboration between historic preservation and design can produce uniquely thoughtful and creative solutions to the aesthetic, technical, cultural, spiritual, economic, and climactic challenges of our times.
Maps, measured drawings, photos and the history of the Castle Pinckney site will be provided to explain the significance of this island property. Variations in the meaning and values of the site help to enrich the design problem at heritage sites. The existing material evidence of the fort should be preserved as part of the solution to convey the authenticity to future generations but alterations to the building fabric may be explored in response to proposed new uses.
Castle Pinckney, the oldest surviving fortification in Charleston, South Carolina, was built in 1809 on a small island in the city’s harbor. It remains one of only three surviving examples of an American “castle,” a rare type of transitional coastal fort, circular in form and lacking angular bastions. The fort played a minor role during the American Civil War and was subsequently decommissioned, passing through the jurisdiction of a number of different government agencies over the past 150 years. Due to lack of funding, Castle Pinckney has essentially languished in abandonment for over a century. In 2011, as a mitigative and educational effort, to bring public attention to a significant endangered resource, a documentation project was undertaken by the Historic American Buildings Survey and by the Master of Science in Historic Preservation program of Clemson University / College of Charleston. Building on this effort, this student design competition is being held to explore ideas for the adaptive reinvention of the site.
The Design and Construction of Castle Pinckney
Castle Pinckney was designed by Jonathan Williams, the first superintendent of the United States Military Academy in West Point. The fort’s unique form was based on contemporary French fortification theories, which Williams had studied while serving as an aide to Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador in Paris. The construction of Castle Pinckney was begun in 1809, overseen by Alexander MaComb, one of the USMA’s first graduates and a protégé of Williams.
Castle Pinckney was built of brick masonry construction, with its exterior walls approximately 15’ (4.5 m) in height and approximately 7’-6” (2.3 m) thick at the base. In plan, the fort was closely related to the design of Castle Clinton, laid out in the general shape of a “half-moon,” with a 165’ (50 m) diameter. The sweeping, rounded section of the fort, oriented south toward the mouth of the harbor, contained eight casemates for cannon. Additional artillery was to be mounted en barbette on the terreplein above. The straight section of wall along the north side of the fort was flanked by two shallow, curved bastions, each with two levels of gun embrasures to provide protection for the centrally-located sally port. Barracks and officers’ housing were located on the interior, along the north wall section.
1811 - 1861
Although built to accommodate up to 200 men, Castle Pinckney was rarely occupied by more than 20 soldiers during the first few decades of the nineteenth century. No action occurred in Charleston during the War of 1812. Over the succeeding years a number of subsidiary structures, including a small hospital, a carpenter’s shop, and a smithy, were constructed to the north side of the fort. In the early 1830s, the yard on the north side of the fort was enclosed by a wooden palisade. As early as 1826, however, Castle Pinckney was being referred to as an “auxiliary,” rather than primary, component of Charleston’s harbor defenses. And with the commencement, in 1829, of the construction of the larger and more substantial Fort Sumter, a permanent system fort at a more strategic location near the mouth of the harbor, Castle Pinckney’s impending obsolescence was made evident.
On 20 December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, precipitating the American Civil War (1861-65). Seven days later, in one of the first hostile actions of the incipient conflict, Castle Pinckney was seized by local secessionists, who overwhelmed its small federal garrison. The fort was then occupied by South Carolina militia. Following the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, Union prisoners were brought to Castle Pinckney, and housed there until their exchange in October of that year. Over the subsequent course of the war, Castle Pinckney’s exterior walls were reinforced with massive earthen berms on both the interior and the exterior to resist bombardment, as the fort served an integral role in the Confederate defense of Charleston Harbor .
1865 - 2011
A light beacon had been installed at Castle Pinckney in 1855 and, following the end of the War, the fort, by then officially obsolete as a military post, was transferred from the Department of War to the Lighthouse Bureau of the Department of the Treasury in 1878 for use as a supply depot. During the 1880s a large warehouse was constructed on the filled-in fort, connected by a railroad trestle to the island’s wharf, along with a house for the lighthouse keeper and his family. In 1917 Castle Pinckney was deaccessioned by the Lighthouse Board and returned to the Department of the Army, under the control of the Corps of Engineers. Castle Pinckney was designated a National Monument in 1924, and transferred to the control of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1933. The NPS, however, lacked funds for restoration and deemed the fort of minor historical importance. In 1956 the fort’s National Monument status was revoked by Congress. That same year the South Carolina State Ports Authority assumed jurisdiction over Shute’s Folly Island. In 1967 the warehouse and residence were destroyed by fire. Although a number of proposals for development of the island and the fort were put forward during the second half of the twentieth century, all failed due to lack of funding.
The future of Castle Pinckney remains uncertain and problematic. The effort to make Castle Pinckney accessible to the public, or to adaptively use the site, faces significant obstacles. First is the fort’s location, on an island in the harbor, requiring boat transportation to access the site. There is no dock on Shute’s Folly Island. The island itself is low-lying and marshy, and covered with a dense low growth which is not amenable to pedestrian activities. The fort itself, its interior completely filled with earth, presents little of obvious, outward historic interest. Which structures or foundations may survive under the fill is unknown. Extensive archeology would be required in the fort’s interior to interpret and/or expose these remains. Although the walls of Castle Pinckney have survived relatively intact, there are unmistakable signs of slow, steady deterioration. Large cracks can be seen in the walls in several locations, and there are a number of locations where bricks have fallen out.
Vegetation remains a problem, with numerous plants, and even trees, growing out of the top of the walls. Charleston is prone to hurricanes, with the city suffering, on average, one a decade. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 caused seven billion dollars in damage and 26 deaths. Likewise, the rise in sea level due to global climate change will undoubtedly have an adverse impact on Castle Pinckney. Although the seaward side of the fort is protected with rip-rap put in place by the State Port Authority, water at high tide nonetheless reaches the bottom of the fort’s walls.