My New Old House
When I took up residence at the Chancognie House, I must admit that I did not know much about it other than what was on the historical marker on the wall – Simon Jude Chancognie House, c. 1816. Only half of that turns out to be correct, but more about that later. In my search for a house here in Charleston, I was looking for a “historic” house. I put “historic” in quotes because to me, historic just meant old – I was looking for an old house, not a new one. I had no idea just what historic could mean.
The first indication that there was something special about the Chancognie House was that Historic Charleston Foundation holds not only an exterior, but also an interior easement on the house. While easements are not uncommon – HCF holds over 400, less than 10% of those are interior easements. Historic fabric is a challenge to preserve, especially in the interior where most houses have weathered multiple efforts to add the amenities of contemporary living over the years. While I would be the last one to volunteer to live without a modern kitchen or bathroom, adding these features to a house without destroying historic fabric is quite a challenge.
One of the reasons so much historic fabric survives at the Chancognie House is due to the fact that bathrooms and a kitchen were never added inside the original structure. There was a bathroom installed on the second-floor piazza at one point, but this was later removed. Additional bathrooms and the kitchen were always housed in outbuildings, leaving the interior of the original house largely unaltered since it was built.
Charleston’s changing fortunes are a big reason for the loss of historic fabric. As fortunes waned, many homes, especially here in the Ansonborough neighborhood in the early 20th century, were divided up into multi-family dwellings. Walls and stairs as well as bathrooms and kitchens were added in places where they were never originally supposed to be. Fortunately, this never happened here and the Chancognie House walked a fine line between owners having the means to maintain the house so that it never fell into complete disrepair, but not having the means to do a full-scale renovation to update the property in the latest style.
Thus the Chancognie House survived remarkably intact with all of its original woodwork, plasterwork, mantels and floors, despite over two centuries of natural and man-made disasters. Now the fun part has now begun – researching what the house originally looked like and figuring out how to bring it back to that original grandeur. It is quite a process and I have only just begun, so I hope that you will follow me on this most unexpected journey!