Architects get vivid history lessons during Penn Center library forum

April 27, 2010 

  • What: Third and final St. Helena Library at Penn Center pre-design community forum. Where: Frissell Community House at Penn Center, St. Helena Island When: 7 to 9 p.m. today

Mary Rivers Legree remembers being passed from one relative to another over her mother's grave when she was just 3. It is her earliest memory of her St. Helena childhood, she said Tuesday at Penn Center's Frissell Community House.

Legree recalled the Gullah tradition at the second of three forums intended to gather community input for the new St. Helena Library at Penn Center. About 40 people took part in a "cultural mapping" process led by representatives of Liollio Architecture, the Charleston firm awarded the library design contract last week.

"Cultural mapping" catalogues the physical, cultural and historical characteristics unique to the area in order to have them reflected in the architecture of the new building, explained Nichole Green, director of Charleston's Old Slave Mart Museum, who is a consultant to Liollio on the library project.

For Legree, those characteristics include living with nature and connecting to the land.

"I was gone away for about 50 years, but something drew me back here," she said. "I was able to stumble across my family's original deed from 1866, when my great-grandfather Abraham Rivers bought 18 acres for $5 an acre."

St. Helena natives and transplants recalled shrimping trips, strict teachers at the Penn Center school, Praise House songs and the end of segregation in Beaufort County. Others recalled moments when national history marched through the same building they sat in Tuesday.

"I was called one day and told Dr. King was speaking on the campus," said John Gadson Sr., a former director of Penn Center, referring to a visit from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "All of the people were in this room. They had to move the chairs because there wasn't enough space. Everyone was sitting on the floor."

Even during segregation, some attendees recalled, Penn Center was one of South Carolina's only integrated havens.

"Penn Center was a place where black and white people ate together, slept in the same cottages," said Rosalyn Browne, who attended the Penn Center school and is now the center's director of culture and history. "I think it's one of the best chapters in our story, that we are not a one-ethnic-group entity. We have always had a history of diversity."

Preliminary designs for the new library are expected to be completed in May. Another round of community forums will be held then.

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