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If you stand in the entrance of the Sons of Beaufort Lodge building at 607 West
St. and look to the far wall, you will notice a slight lean to the left. The building strains to its side, fighting off old age and gravity, like an elderly prizefighter who has taken one too many hits to the head.
That the building stands at all, after 127 years of service, is a feat in itself. But for it to stand another 127 years, it will take a feat of a community.
The Walking Tour of the Old Commons Neighborhood, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, will help raise money for the Sons of Beaufort Lodge #36, the Masonic group that bought the building in 1937. The tour is being organized by the Old Commons Neighborhood Association, and the restoration of the site is being led by Historic Beaufort Foundation. Tickets are $15, and the tour will be a self-guided. There will also be a fish fry held in conjunction with the tour. The cost of that is $7.
Evan R. Thompson, executive director of Historic Beaufort Foundation, helped the Sons of Beaufort secure a matching grant of $21,600 from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. The organization has until August 2008 to raise the remainder of the money. So far the group has collected $7,000. Thompson said he estimates it will take $60,000 to completely stabilize the building.
"Window repair, siding replacement, roof repair, some structural issues -- just basically weatherize and stabilize the building," he said about what needs to be done. "Everything kind of on the outside."
Of course, those are the repairs that are known at this time. The building -- which has several large supports on the outside bracing it against slumping to the side further -- has to be thoroughly inspected and leveled before any repairs can be started.
"It's hard to say right now,"
Bill Green, a past master of the Sons of Beaufort, said about the work that needs to be done. "Once the structural engineer comes in and we actually get the structure level, then we can determine how much of the original structure we can use."
The lodge was constructed in 1890 and used as a meeting hall for black residents. It has been in continuous use since being purchased by the fraternal organization in 1937. The building has ties throughout its existence with political groups, social fraternities and other meetings. Thompson points to the external stairs that lead to the second floor as proof of its original intent.
"It was important to keep (the second floor) separated from the space down here," he said. "Because they had an ice cream parlor down here once, and a meeting space. Obviously Masons and other fraternal groups didn't want people just going up and down into their private space."
Jerry Stocks chaired the tour committee. She and seven other members helped secure the 13 sites on the walking tour, some of which have never been opened on previous tours. She said the neighborhood was quick to respond, not just because of the urgent need to save the structure, but also because of the work of the Sons of Beaufort.
"They help us in the neighborhood," she said. "They're handy. They're on call anytime somebody needs their lawn mowing, some older person needs yard work done."
Once the money is raised, Historic Beaufort Foundation will act as project manager, assuring all repairs are done in a way that preserves as much of the original structure as possible. The goal is to restore the building as close as possible to the way it looked in 1890.
The foundation, along with the Sons of Beaufort, will hire a contractor to oversee the work. Green said he expects the members of his group will also help with the repairs to keep costs down. If all goes well, it should take about two months to complete the repairs. The Sons of Beaufort hope to keep the first floor open for other groups to hold meetings and social functions.
Thompson said his Historic Beaufort Foundation has long identified this project as a necessity, and the time to act is now .
"This building was identified by the foundation as one of the most endangered on a list we had prepared in 1999," he said. "With a project like this, it's one where we can offer support to an organization that came to us, is committed to doing it right and has support of the neighborhood association, as well. We thought it was a unique structure with an important history. It's the only fraternal lodge in the Historic District that is still being used for its purpose. So it was important for us to be good neighbors and help them restore the building."