Poinsett Club site started as private residence a century ago

downtown historic homes


The Poinsett Club glitters with Christmas decorations in this December 2009 photo.

When Lewis Parker spent $5,500 for slightly more than four acres of land in the new Boyce Lawn subdivision in 1902, he was making, he thought, a fortunate investment in the future.

Five years earlier, the Goldsmith Realty Company had platted lots and named streets on James Petigru Boyce's former estate, “Boyce Lawn,” once all the land between modern day East North Street and Cleveland Park. Boyce was president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when it was located in Greenville (1855-1872), and Professors Manly, Williams, Broadus, Toy and Whitsett taught there.

One street was named Boyce, and another was a misspelled variation (Pettigru, with two “t's”) of his middle name.

At the turn of the century, Greenville city limits ended where East Washington Street met McBee Avenue. The realty company, however, extended the street eastward and created Washington Road as the southern boundary of its “suburb.” (The land further south, toward the river, had a steep slope and was more difficult to develop.)

Initial sales of the large new lots were relatively slow, but by 1900 C.C. Graham and Alester G. Furman had built Broadus Street mansions. Boyce Lawn was going to be fashionable.

Parker paid a substantial price for the land, but he could afford it. President of Victor Mill in Greer and one of the major investors and organizers, with his cousin Thomas Parker, of Monaghan Mill, Lewis Parker was an attorney with an eye for profit and a taste for luxury.

Even before he built his own mansion at Washington and Williams Street, he sold off two lots on Manly Street, recouping a part of his cost. Then he turned his attention to his future home. Two-and-a-half stories tall, with four massive chimneys, a glass conservatory in the rear, electric lighting, and a carriage entrance, the house was furnished elegantly and valued at $35,000.

(Mill village houses, comparatively, cost $100 per room; the equivalent cost of the Parker House in today's money is $718,000.)

Parker's “home place” was a Greenville show place, perhaps the most expensive home in the community.

And then it burned down. On April 10, 1910, a massive fire, eventually burning for 16 hours, destroyed everything but the side walls and chimneys. (Although the conservatory's glass panes exploded, the plants were uninjured.) No one was home at the time, and much of the furniture was saved by neighbors and firemen, but the house was a total loss.

The next day Parker took a train for New York, leaving his wife to deal with the clean-up.

He was, after all, a very busy man. In addition to the Greenville mills, he was also president of the Whaley Mills in Columbia, and with his cousin had formed the Parker Cotton Mill Company, with over a million spindles, creating the largest textile corporation in the nation.

Although insurance covered only $22,000 of his loss, he could well afford to rebuild, and he did. The house he rebuilt is today's Poinsett Club. Based on legal evidence, it seems likely that J. F. Gallivan Construction Co. did the new construction, creating a monumental portico and beautifully detailed brick work.

From the start, though, the new house was ill-fated. Its rebuilding took longer and cost more than initial estimates, and Parker refused to pay Gallivan's bill for the work. So Gallivan Construction went to court and obtained a mechanics lien for $18,500, not a tawdry sum, on the house.

Then Parker had unexpected financial reverses. The outbreak of the First World War in Europe in the summer of 1914 sent the cotton market into a downward spiral. Fabric dyes, almost all German in origin, vanished. Mills cut workers' hours as orders dried up. The Parker Cotton Co. did not have sufficient reserves; in January 1915, it declared bankruptcy.

But Parker was a clever attorney. Before the bankruptcy, in November 1914, he conveyed the house to his wife, Margaret, to protect his assets. And he obviously wasn't penniless after the bankruptcy, since the following July he bought Enoree Mill for $200,000.

But he was a sick man. He had cancer, he learned a few months later, and in April 1916 he died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

His wife almost immediately sold the house, for $33,500, satisfying the lien, to J. A. McCullough, a universally respected judge and land developer wealthy enough to afford the mansion. But he stayed in the home just two years before moving out of town.

Misfortune did not haunt McCullough, although during his move, when his wife's complete set of Haviliand china was placed on sawhorses awaiting packing, a careless mover dislodged one leg of the support, and the entire set went crashing to the ground.

Then a second mill owner, Allen Graham, moved in. The president of Vardry and Camperdown Mills, he was exceptionally well-to-do in 1919. Yet he too failed precipitously. By 1927, his liabilities “to diverse and sundry people,” were so great that he turned the house over to five trustees in order to settle his debts.

They sold the house to Marion and Zaidee Poe Brawley. Neither was a paragon of financial management, although he was president of Cadillac Sales and vice president of Nucassee Manufacturing Co., and she had inherited a fortune from her father, the former owner of Poe Mill.

Within three years, with their once-substantial fortune nearly expended and reeling from the effects of Great Depression, they arranged a loan, with the house as collateral, from her older sister, Hattie Poe Cogswell, and cousin Frederick Symmes. In the meantime, they took in boarders to cover the interest cost. Two years later, unable even to make loan payments, they moved next door to another home they owned and gave up the Parker house.

It sat vacant for two years; then Mrs. Cogswell and Symmes first leased and then, two years later, sold it to the newly reorganized Poinsett Club for $28,000.

Finally there were enough deep pockets to renovate, maintain, and, eventually, greatly enlarge the landmark house.

Judith Bainbridge