Top-O-Rock is the legendary house built by architect, Henry Elden, overlooking MacCorkle Avenue and the Charleston Skyline. You can see it at right, in better days (photo by Jennifer Peters). When Elden passed away, it was left in the care of his son, who found the task of maintaining this architectural masterpiece to be outside of his range of ability.
So he put it up for sale. Any prospective buyer had to be told that the house and its accompanying office would have to undergo an expensive and extensive renovation before it could really be used for any purpose. Originally, the asking price was rumored to be in the six-million dollar range.By the time we used Top-O-Rock as the location for our Radio Free Charleston 100 host segments in May, 2010, the price had dropped to around two million.
The building was in pretty wretched shape when we shot there. The residential section looked okay for an abandoned house, but it smelled of water damage. The office had been gutted, and there were holes in the floor with bare wires sticking out where fixtures had been hastily removed. At the time I described it as looking like “The Jetsons house, after the apoloclypse.”
Even with my limited knowledge of building codes and construction costs, I knew that whoever bought the place was looking at seven figures of additional investment just to make it a viable property.
Apparently some some minor cosmetic repairs were made to get the house presentable for a 2011 estate sale, but word on the street was that the asking price was plummeting.
When it was finally sold to a local doctor and his wife a couple of years ago, it was reportedly for $400,000–twenty percent of the 2010 asking price, and less than eight percent of the original asking price. When the new owners said that they might use it for office space or they might make it a bed-and-breakfast, red flags went off for me.
Most people don’t drop almost half a million bucks on something without having a clear idea of what to do with it. However, there is a certain type of person who will invest tons of money into ill-defined projects without carefully considering the repurcussions. Some, but not all, doctors are notorious for spending more money to get out of investments than they spent to get into them in the first place. I don’t mean to perpetuate a stereotype here, but this has been my observation.
I don’t know Mitchell Rashid, so I’m only guessing here, but it looks like he thought he was getting a bargain, snatching up a Charleston landmark for a fraction of its asking price, only to find himself quickly in over his head when he realized that he was probably looking at spending a couple of million dollars more just to make the property legal for any commercial use.
I don’t know whether he got bad advice, good advice, or just ignored advice, but it’s clear that Top-O-Rock is a project that he put way on a back-burner when the scope of the undertaking became apparent to him.
Unfortunately, you can’t just put a building away and forget about it for a few years. Things happen. Grass grows. Vandals arrive. Thieves plunder.
A couple of weeks ago the news broke on Facebook, and it was picked up by The Gazette this week–that this jewel of Charleston had been abandoned. Some of those magnificent 20-foot glass panels that circled the house had been smashed out. Graffiti–which wasn’t even particularly imaginative or clever–had been scrawled on the walls. Copper wires had been stolen. The place is a mess, and is in danger of being demolished.
It’s pretty clear that thieves struck first, stealing copper wiring and some of the doors (which should be easy to track down). After the doors were gone, vandals, probably stupid teenagers, moved in and partied like morons there.
It’s a miracle that there wasn’t a meth lab set up inside.
This is heartbreaking and infuriating. Things will have to happen fast if there’s any chance to save this historical treasure from the wrecking ball.
A Facebook group has sprung up dedicated to preserving Top-O-Rock. That has opened a dialogue between city officials and cultural leaders. I think that it’s going to take a dedicated non-profit to save this building. And it’s going to take money, in the words of George Harrison, “A whole lot of money” and it’s also going to take patience and time, which I hope we still have.
The cause needs help. We need Charleston’s wonderful and generous benefactors to step up and lend financial and organizational assistance. It’s going to take the combined fiscal might of The Maiers, The Chiltons, The Schoenbaums, The Ratries and others to rescue this masterpiece from the scrap heap of history.
Is Gaston Caperton still in town? He’d be a great person to spearhead this campaign.
If we’re going to save Top-O-Rock it’s going to take money and a plan.
Which brings us to the other question. If we save the building, what do we do with it?
It’s clear that the idea of a bed-and-breakfast was not fully thought out. Not only is the buidling ill-suited for the idea, I don’t really know if there’s a demand for B&Bs in Charleston. Office space is not exactly a scarce resource in Charleston, and unless an individual comes along who so loves the property that he wants to live there and use the office for his on business himself, the costs would not be competitive.
That’s why the building needs a non-profit foundation. My take is that the best use would be as some sort of cultural or arts resource. It could be a museum, an art gallery, a performance space, a rental hall for weddings and parties, but it’s not likely to turn a huge profit, if any.
This is a property that will cost a fortune to maintain. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from trying to save it. I’m just being realistic about the level of commitment that it will take. If we can save Top-O-Rock, it’s going to eat into Charleston’s cultural funding pie from now on. I think it’s well worth it.
However, the immediate issue is securing the property and saving it from demolition.
To do that, it won’t help to demonize the Rashids. obviously they got in over their heads, and we, as a community, should do what we can to help them get out from under this mess. They screwed up. Let’s forgive them and move on so we can fix this.
Now is not the time to visit the property and take pictures. First, it’s already been done and we know how bad things are. Second, you’re getting in the way at this point. Let’s not make things worse.
We don’t need to antagonize city officials over this. We will need to beg and plead with them to perhaps bend a few rules and maybe be a little more lenient in terms of deadlines in dealing with this project. The size, scope and historical and artistic significance deserves special treatment, and I’m sure the city realizes this and will take all of those factors into account.
This problem was not caused by The City of Charleston, and we don’t need to do any finger-pointing or blaming.
This problem was caused by the owners neglecting the security concerns of this property and the vandals and criminals who took advantage of the situation. The owners are reportedly working to secure the property. Whether or not the vandals can be found is a huge question mark. We’re really not even sure when this vandalism occurred. It might have happened over our long, snowy winter, or it might have just happened less than a month ago.
So, the question is, what can we do?
There is a Change.org petition. Visit the page and sign it. If you are on Facebook, join the page to save Top-O-Rock. Keep an eye out for legitimate fundraisers. There is talk of a Kickstarter project or Booster.com T-Shirt to help raise funds to get the ball rolling on establishing a foundation. The Facebook page is probably your best source for upcoming fundraising opportunities.
I have great personal memories of shooting RFC 100 at top-O-Rock with Kitty Killton, Melanie Larch and Steve Adams, and I will treasure those, but more importantly, this is such a special place that future generations should have the chance to build their own memories there. Top-O-rock is more than just a cool building. It’s a spiritual focal point that shows how beautiful and wonderful the City of Charleston can be when we let our imaginations run wild and focus our energy toward moving forward.
It would truly be a dark day for this city if we can’t preserve this totem to that spirity.
PopCult Note: Most of the photos accompanying this piece were lifted from the Save Top-O-Rock Facebook page and were posted by Hope Lockhart, Jennifer Peters and others. You can head to the Facebook page for many more photos of the damage as well as photos of Top-O-Rock in its glory days.
As we prepare to post this we discovered the first “Go Fund Me” page devoted to saving Top-O-Rock. Visit it and contribute.