East and West Oak Forest: West Ashley’s Hottest Midcentury Neighborhoods

East and West Oak Forest: West Ashley’s Hottest Midcentury Neighborhoods

By Christina Butler/Butler Preservation LC for Charleston Empire Properties

5 July 2020

East and West Oak Forest are some of the most affordable subdivisions close to downtown Charleston- just a three mile drive- and they’re also full of character.  The Mid Century Modern and neotraditional houses in these West Ashley neighborhoods are situated on large lots below mature tree canopies.  East and West Oak Forest are bounded by Magnolia Road, Carolina Terrace, and Maryville on the east, Savannah Highway on the south, Ashley River Road on the north, and a wooded buffer between Briarcliff subdivision on the west, and are convenient to shopping, parks, schools, and restaurants.
The Oak Forest neighborhoods lie in St. Andrew’s parish (a colonial and ecclesiastical and political district that encompasses West Ashley today and which is now part of the City of Charleston.)   They are near the original Charles Towne Landing settlement on the Ashley River, and are located on part of two eighteenth century plantations, Hillsboro and the Bluff.  The Lords Proprietors of the Carolina colony granted the land, which bounded on Colleton Creek (a small tidal creek that still winds along behind Oak Forest Drive and flows into larger Wappoo Creek) to Robert Gibbes in the late seventeenth century. By 1713, John Lucas of the Island of Antigua had the land, which became the 600 acre Bluff plantation that he passed to his son, George Lucas.  Eliza Lucas Pinckney is famous for experimenting with indigo production on the family’s St. Andrews properties

A map by Henry A.M. Smith showing the colonial plantations in West Ashley. The arrow points at future East and West Oak Forests.

Hillsboro plantation to the north of the Bluff was the site of John West’s experimental gardens to determine the most effective potential cash crops to grow in early Carolina. It was later owned by Dr. John Lining, whose family sold it to the Fisbhurnes.  Henry A.M. Smith, an early twentieth century historian, noted that,  “it was the same place known in later years as Hillsborough plantation . . . and passed to C.C. Brown, sometimes Sherriff of Charleston County during the Carpet Bag or Republican ascendancy [during the Reconstruction era] by whose widow it was in large part divided. . . it is now in large part the site of a negro village or settlement called Maryville.”  Ashleyville/Maryville is still an important historic, predominantly African American community.  The other portion of Hillsboro became the Oak Forests.

St. Andrew’s Parish/ West Ashley on the Mills Atlas of Charleston District, 1825. Library of Congress

The West Ashley/St. Andrews area remained rural into the early twentieth century, and was home to truck farms that grew vegetables and small dairies, include Coburg (known for its famous rotating cow sign on Savannah Highway.)  Interest in development began after the Ashley River Bridge was constructed to connect to the Charleston peninsula in the 1920s.  By 1940, developers and local government recognized a need for more housing when Charleston area experienced a population explosion in the years leading to World War Two.  Workers flocked to the region for Navy Base and affiliated work, and began settling into the Lowcountry to raise families. A state delegation created public service districts west of the Ashley to bring water and sewerage.  The future Oak Forests were part of the Carolina Terrace district, on land owned by Wilhelmina Ravanel.

West Oak Forest was created in 1947, and the first permits for new houses on the spacious suburban lots were issued in the late 1940s.  Ads from 1949 boasted, “This development was planned with the resident in mind. The offset avenue running parallel with Savannah Highway gives escape from road noise and the danger of traffic, and at the same time offers convenience and accessibility. The gorgeous trees and surroundings complete the picture. When you see it, you’ll agree. Large wooded lots with moss covered trees in one of Charleston newest and finest subdivisions. Presenting the particular homesite seeker with a choice selection of beautiful lots. Sensible restrictions. Paved streets. City water.”  

A June 1949 ad for West Oak Forest lots, from the News and Courier.

Rhodes Construction built a model home that year which was furnished entirely with South Carolina-made products.  By 1952, West Oak was popular enough to create additional lots along Stono, Coosaw, Wateree, and Wimbee Drive (named for Lowcountry Native American tribes.)  

(Left/Top Image) A 1952 plat showing new lots in West Oak Forest

(right/bottom image) A 1955 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing the post-World War Two growth in West Ashley.

Neighboring East Oak Forest was subdivided in 1955 by Joseph P. Riley, a prominent real estate developer and the father of former Mayor Riley.  It contained 91 lots on streets named for famous poets- Longfellow, Shelley, Kipling.  Restrictions specified that houses must be a minimum of 1,000 square feet and constructed with a brick veneer.  West Oak Forest Drive runs between and connects the two neighborhoods.  Approved for GI Bill and conventional FHA loans, East Oak Forest ads claimed, “when you consider the conveniences offered in this close-in subdivision, it too will be your preference! Wide streets (now hard surfaced), large lots, close to elementary and high schools and the growing West Ashley shopping centers and just a few minutes from Charleston.”

A 1955 plat showing the creation of East Oak Forest.

In former Hilliardsville, the Osgood family of Massachusetts bought a large waterfront lot in 1929 and erected a substantial seawall, behind which they created seven pleasure gardens collectively called Pierates Cruze, which they opened to the public in 1943. Although the gardens closed in 1959 and the land sold, there are still surviving garden features, such as the Belled Wall, which was reconstructed after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.  Nearby is the current Alhambra Hall, a recreation building with a waterfront picnic area, was built in 1937 to replace an earlier building.

A Spetember 1955 ad for new East Oak Forest neighborhood, News and Courier.

Houses in the Forests come in two main styles- Mid Century Modern ranches, with low hip or gable roofs, asymmetrical window placements, and open floorplans, and neotraditional houses with minimalist details and small front porches.  Many feature formal living rooms and dining rooms with arched openings between the spaces, and pine paneled dens or family rooms are common especially in West Oak Forest.  Most have spacious front and back yards under large mature pine and oak trees, and the winding streets through the neighborhoods are walkable and quiet. 

A May 1949 Rhodes Model Home advertisement shows the early housing types in West Oak Forest.

A representative Mid Century Modern East Oak Forest house currently on the market

A neotraditional West Oak Forest house built in the early 1950s, currently listed.

A main selling point for the neighborhoods when they were first developed in the years following World War Two, as a 1955 article for East Oak Forest noted was, “the proximity of the subdivision to schools, churches and shopping areas. That’s why the [Riley] firm selected the site for development.” This remains true today, as East Oak and West Oak Forest boast popular recreational spaces including the Greenway and city parks, well performing nearby schools, and several shopping centers a short drive away.  The pub, restaurant, and boutique store hub at Avondale on Magnolia Road and Savannah Highway are in short walking distance from these quiet, tree lined suburbs, where several houses have been tastefully modernized and are currently on the market. 

View of the large, tree lined yards in East Oak Forest.

Sources:

– Donna Jacobs. Images of America: West Ashley.  Charleston: Arcadia Press, 2012

– Post and Courier, “West Ashley a diverse mix of spaces, historical sites, restaurants and shops.” 25 August 2017

– Henry Augustus Middleton Smith. “Old Charles Town and Its Vicinity”, South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol 16. no 2. (April 1915), 49-67.

– News and Courier, “House Delegation would create a district”, 22 March 1940.

– News and Courier, “The first public offering of homesites”, 3 September 1955

– Charleston Register of Deeds, plats and deeds collections

– Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

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