The Day the Chancognie House Almost Burned Down

Like most early American cities, Charleston has a long history of fires both small and large.  Wooden buildings in close proximity to each other along with fire-building for cooking and warmth were all too often a combustible combination.  The fire of April 27-28, 1838 burned over 500 properties and stopped just down the street from the Chancognie House.  The fire of December 11, 1861 started a few blocks south of the house and quickly spread down the peninsula, burning almost 600 properties. 

A c. 1950s view of the Chancognie House (far right) and its neighbor (center) before the fire of 1974. Photo by Louis Schwartz, courtesy of The Charleston Museum and Historic Charleston Foundation.

But the Chancognie House had a much closer call on March 14, 1974 when the house next door caught fire. As the picture at the top of this post attests (acquired by a member of the family who owned the Chancognie House at the time), it was quite an inferno.  According to an account in the News and Courier, the cause was unknown, but the neighboring house was “extensively damaged” and “the fire, driven by a brisk wind, destroyed the interior of the third floor and badly charred the Adam-style woodwork in one second floor room.”  The article asserted that the two-story front piazzas were “so badly damaged they will probably not be salvageable.”  This assessment was quite accurate, and the house today has a one-story front piazza – you can still see a second-floor door that would have led to the upper level of the piazza. 

The same view of the Chancognie House (far right) today and its neighbor – note the one story piazza.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of the Charleston Fire Department, the impact on the house here was minimal considering the intensity of the blaze next door.  The article noted that the Chancognie House “suffered extensive fire damage to the attic, where a cedar shingle roof, under the tin roof, caught fire.”  A later addition at the rear of the house was severely damaged, but fortunately for the main house, “[e]xcept for repairable water damage, most of the house’s interior, with Adam-style woodwork and mantels, escaped harm.” 

Image of the third floor cornice of the Chancognie House courtesy of David Hoffman. On the left, there is evidence of damage from the 1974 fire next door.

Another factor in the Chancognie House’s survival – old-growth pine. During the current renovation project here, some of the original framing and shingles were revealed (see photos below). While there was significant charring where the neighboring fire reached the house, old-growth pine is very slow burning, so the original house here survived with minimal damage.  The later addition was not so fortunate and the upper floor was eventually removed due to significant fire damage before being replaced in the 1980s.  If only these walls could talk! 

Evidence of the fire damage on the third floor framing and wooden lathe behind the plaster of the Chancognie House. Image courtesy of David Hoffman.
A charred original shingle from under the later metal roof. The interior of the attic and the underlying shingles were treated with a sealant after the fire to keep the charred wood from disintegrating.

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