Charleston Suffragist Helped Save Historic Architecture

Aug 25, 2020

Susan Pringle Frost was born to a prominent Charleston family and seemed destined for a life of leisure until her father's fertilizer business fell apart after the Civil War.  She left boarding school to help her family, first by working as a secretary for an architect and then as a stenographer for the U.S. District Court.

"It seems presumptuous to say I understand Miss Sue, but I sort of get some things about her and I just admire her deeply," says Betsy Kirkland Cahill.

Cahill is the great-great granddaughter of one of the judges Frost worked for.  She learned about the South Carolina suffragist and preservationist while growing up on the peninsula, and as the board chair for the Preservation Society of Charleston, an organization Frost founded.

She says while Frost worked as a stenographer, the women's suffrage movement was gaining momentum and got her attention.

"What really galvanized her was the discovery that the male stenographers were paid more than she was, and she saw this as the injustice that is was," says Cahill.

Frost joined the movement and became the first president of the Charleston Equal Suffrage League.  She later campaigned with the National Woman's party, protesting President Woodrow Wilson outside the White House in 1917.  Several women were jailed for taking part.

"She claimed to be very disappointed that she was arrested at the demonstration," says Cahill.  "That was the kind of woman she was.  She was all in."

Cahill says by the time the 19th amendment was coming up for a vote, Frost had to step away to attend to the estate  of an aunt who had died.  Once again, family obligations seemed to change the course of her life.  However, Cahill says this time, they put Frost back on a path she had already started, real estate.  She had dabbled in it a decade earlier.

Rainbow Row on East Bay Street is a stretch of well-known pastel colored homes that Susan Pringle Frost is credited with helping save.

By 1919, parts of the peninsula were slum ridden and disease infested.  Frost thought women should play a role in cleaning up society's ills.  So, she bought homes in disrepair, fixed them and sold to those who would preserve them. 

"While Miss Sue is doing this, I think she was sort of scoffed at by the bankers and the lawyers and the businessmen of Charleston," says the Executive Director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, Kristopher King.  "But she persevered."

Frost didn't care what people thought of her.  She was fearless, unconventional and outspoken.

King says as more automobiles moved into the city, corner lots considered prime real estate were also being eyed to build gas stations.  But Frost would have none of it.

Joseph Manigault house on Meeting Street was the focus of a meeting Susan Pringle Frost held in 1920 when the property was in danger of being demolished. The gathering lead to the founding of what would become the Preservation Society of Charleston.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

When the Joseph Manigault House on Meeting Street was threatened with demolition in 1920, she gathered others who wanted to save it. The Society of the Preservation of Old Dwellings as it was initially called was formed, and Frost was the president.

King says she is responsible not only for creating the organization, but for the modern-day preservation movement.

"You know her approach of engaging and mobilizing has really become the standard of every preservation organization in the country."

Frost is also credited with helping to save the homes along Charleston's well-known Rainbow Row on East Bay Street as well as the Miles Brewton home on King Street.  It's where she was born and later moved back to spend the rest of her life. Today the home is a private residence.

The woman who spoke out for women's rights when they had been silenced, went on to do the same for historic dwellings; places where people lived and breathed, and Frost believed deserved a life.

Miles Brewton house on King Street where Susan Pringle Frost was born and later returned to live out the rest of her life.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Cahill says she still inspires.

"It's that passion for communication and consciousness raising, and her determination that, yeah maybe you get discouraged sometimes, but you don't give up," says Cahill.

The Preservation Society of Charleston continues to fight for the city Frost deeply loved.  At times, the issues seem even more complex, like over development and sea level rise.  But Susan Pringle Frost is the society's spiritual guide.