Have you ever been in Charleston harbor? Ever heard of Shutes Folly Island? Chances are you probably haven’t, even if you’re an avid Lowcountry boater. This forgotten island is situated almost right in the center of Charleston harbor and yet its significance and history is somewhat unknown, even to Charlestonians. The most popular and distinguished landmark in Charleston harbor is undeniably Fort Sumter where the infamous first shots of the American Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861. Although Shutes Folly is less than 3 miles from Fort Sumter, it is often overshadowed and considered historically obsolete by many. However, surprisingly Shutes Folly Island actually contains the oldest surviving fort in all of Charleston.
Built in 1809, Castle Pinckney represents one of only three surviving American castle-style forts in the United States. Its rounded, brick architecture is reminiscent of French fortifications built in the same era making it a truly unique American fort. As time passed a light beacon was added to the southern side of the fort. In addition, a small hospital and carpenters shop were constructed on the north side as well as a barracks and officers quarters which could accommodate up to 200 soldiers if need be. In 1829 construction began on Fort Sumter, a more robust fortification at the mouth of Charleston harbor which provided a more strategic defensive position. After the addition of Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney transitioned into more of an auxiliary role in military operations. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 its walls were reinforced and defenses were upgraded to withstand a Union bombardment. Castle Pinckney was then converted into a prison to house captured Union soldiers and served an important role for Confederate defenses.
After the Civil War ended in 1865 Castle Pinckney was officially decommissioned as a military post. Its role changed throughout the decades and its ownership was transferred several times between government agencies including the Lighthouse Bureau, Army Corps of Engineers and eventually the National Park Service in 1933. In 1956 the South Carolina State Ports Authority gained jurisdiction of Shutes Folly Island and 11 years later in 1967 a fire broke out on the island destroying a supply warehouse and several outbuildings.
The remains of these structures remain widely unexplored to this day. Large amounts of fill and vegetation have accumulated on the majority of the island including the interior of the castle itself masking its true historical significance. Spring tides and storm surges have also degraded the bases of Castle Pinckney’s walls and remaining structures. Its marshy lowlands and overgrowth make it difficult to traverse or explore on foot. Adding to the difficulty is that Shutes Folly Island lacks a dock or any type of boat landing to utilize which significantly hampers efforts to do any serious exploring or reconstruction.
The future of Castle Pinckney is anything but certain. Logistical problems stem from the island’s location in the harbor, lack of a dock access and dense overgrowth. Lack of government funding has also hindered and delayed efforts to move forward in revitalizing this historical site. However, in 2102 the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) announced that it would hold a student competition called “Preservation as Provocation: Rethinking Castle Pinckney for the 21st Century”. This competition challenged students to conceptualize ecologically friendly designs to make Castle Pinckney more tourist friendly and educational while still preserving its natural aesthetics, marine wildlife and historical prominence.
Some of the student conceptualizations are stunning and extremely well thought out. Elevated boardwalks, suspended viewing platforms and smart roofs that collect water for self-sustaining restroom facilities are just some of the advanced ideas that came from the competition which has reignited the revitalization debate. However, these ideas are only conceptualizations and real plans for the future of the Castle Pinkney are still undecided. If you would like to check out more student ideas and artistic conceptualizations for Castle Pinckney check out Castle Pinckney Concepts .
(These photos are concept designs created by an architectural student competing in the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture competition from 2012-2013 school year. There are no plans currently to restore or alter Castle Pinckney in anyway.)