Dead House – North Charleston, South Carolina
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This small brick building within the Officers’ Quarters District of North Charleston‘s former Navy Yard may be the oldest structure in the city, though its origin remains a mystery. Ominously called the Dead House, it is suspected to have been built prior to the Revolutionary War. A bronze seal of the Lord’s Proprietors was once embedded above the entrance, lending to the idea that this building dates back to Charleston County‘s colonial days. The seal has been removed, and the year it was placed above the door is not clear.
When this property was being surveyed in 1895 for the layout of Chicora Park – a public park that was here prior to the Navy Yard and designed by the noted Olmsted brothers in 1896 – “Dead House” was inscribed on the plat near the location of this building. When the Navy turned this land into its Officers’ Quarters in the early twentieth century, the phrase “Dead House” continued to be used to describe this building of unknown provenance. Its English bond brown bricks and windowless design suggest it was a powder magazine, though no mention of it appears on any early list of magazines. However, prior to the property becoming a public park or Officers’ Quarters, this land was a plantation. The answer to the mystery may lie with one of the plantation’s former owners.
Land along the Cooper River makes for fertile fields, and 15 different families planted the tract from the time the property was issued via land grant in 1672 through 1895. Former owner Sir Egerton (also spelled Edgerton) Leigh owned a plantation here called Retreat Plantation from 1767 until 1771. It is Leigh’s profession that points to the theory that the Dead House was built as a powder magazine.
Leigh served as judge of the vice admiralty in Charleston and at times dealt with cases pertaining to customs officers who assessed taxes on gunpowder arriving on incoming ships. Leigh famously presided over the seizing of two ships which belonged to Henry Laurens – Leigh’s uncle by marriage – when the ships did not follow proper customs procedure. While Leigh attempted to compromise with Laurens by allowing the release of one of the ships, Laurens remained indignant and sued the seizing officer, George Roupell. The subsequent feud between Laurens and Leigh lasted for years.
It is suspected by some that Leigh, a Loyalist, kept some of the powder here for the impending war. Others theorize that even if this was built as a powder magazine, the building was used by subsequent owners to store the dead while they awaited burial on family plots. The sealed brick room have been enough cool to help preserve corpses, an feature which may have led to the building’s odd name.
Until future evidence reveals the true history behind the Dead House, it remains a fascinating structure left to speculation. The Dead House rests in the vicinity of the Admiral’s House, also known as Quarters A.
Dead House Info
Address: 100 Navy Way, North Charleston, SC 29405
Dead House Map
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