MOSQUITO BEACH — As the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office investigates what it calls a suspicious fire at the construction site of the historic Pine Tree Hotel, project leaders are assessing the scope of the loss and vowing to forge ahead with plans to remake the building.
“The damage is done,” project manager Kyle Taylor said. “We want to move forward with getting this thing done.”
The project, years in the making, got a big boost several years ago when the National Park Service awarded a $43,000 research grant to the nonprofit in charge, followed by $490,000 from the Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Grant Program to rehabilitate the Pine Tree Hotel.
Salvage work was nearing completion when the fire broke out at the rear of the structure on April 15, charring 28 old floor joists that contractors had hoped to reuse.
The damage was limited. About three-quarters of reusable materials already had been removed, Taylor said.
Replacing the lost joists likely will require a special arrangement and could cost more than $8,000, he said. That’s a blow, given the tight budget of about $500,000. And now the team wants to install security cameras that function 24/7, better lighting and a sprinkler system — all extra costs.
Last week, Charleston County approved an elevation variance, enabling the team to reconcile the Pine Tree Hotel historic designation (it’s included on the National Register of Historic Places) with the need to protect the building from potential flooding.
But they will need to make some other changes, including improved water drainage, the use of more gravel at the site and the installation of an air purification system inside the building.
Taylor said a new grant application has been submitted, and the team is hopeful it can secure about $450,000, helping them meet these new goals.
But he doesn’t want to put all his eggs in one basket, so he plans to start a GoFundMe campaign and possibly reach out to local grant-making organizations, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office released its incident report on the blaze April 18 but revealed little new information.
A deputy was dispatched at 3:29 p.m. April 15 and learned from firefighters at the scene of “suspicious circumstances,” according to the report.
Footprints were discovered around the structure, and two witnesses were identified.
Bill “Cubby” Wilder, a leader of the Sol Legare community of which Mosquito Beach is a part, said local witnesses spoke of a pickup truck driving off at the time of the fire.
Wilder said he would like to make Mosquito Beach Road private and close a gate after dark on days when the hotel and restaurants are not being used.
“It’s open to the public and we have no control,” he said. “I don’t mind people coming down there, but not after dark.”
Sol Legare Island once was part of Savannah Plantation, about 800 acres owned by Solomon Legare where enslaved laborers cultivated sea island cotton. After the Civil War, many African Americans operated small farms on adjacent James Island and on Sol Legare Island, which has remained predominantly Black to this day.
In 2018, someone stole a colorfully painted surf board welcoming people to Mosquito Beach, he said. In early 2019, a couple of White men drove a vehicle decorated with a big Confederate flag along the road, spray-painted the n-word and a swastika onto the pavement, then took off. County officials soon arrived to covered up the offensive graffiti.
Then in early 2021, someone stole a historic marker mounted at the end of Mosquito Beach Road; two weeks later a second marker near the entrance was knocked off its post. Wilder found car tracks close by, he said. He took the damaged sign to his home for safekeeping.
During the period of legal segregation in the South, Mosquito Beach was one of just a few places by the water where African Americans could congregate without fear of harassment or arrest.
It became a hot spot of social activity that reached a peak in the 1950s and ’60s. The small hotel filled up during warmer weather, and restaurants served traditional Lowcountry food. A boardwalk and pavilion over the marsh served as a stage for live music performances and dancing.
The popularity of Mosquito Beach waned as the Jim Crow era faded into the past, and in 1989 Hurricane Hugo clobbered the structures there. Local residents have been trying to revitalize this gathering place ever since, but the efforts have faltered for a lack of adequate funding and an abundance of bureaucratic obstacles.
But now things are progressing. The project’s funding included a Hurricane Irma Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Grant of $250,000 to restore the Island Breeze Restaurant next to the hotel.
Another restaurant nearby likely will reopen soon.
Wilder said the hotel renovation team expects to receive a building permit in the next few weeks, and to start work in May. By autumn, the new Pine Tree Hotel should be completed.
The investigation into the fire is still ongoing.