Trying to Pinpoint Pin Point: The Value of Diverse Significance
You probably have not been there, and if you have you would probably pass through it thinking it was no different than any other little old settlement anywhere. But Pin Point, Georgia, just off the Diamond Causeway overlooking Shipyard Creek is a special place. Or at least that is the triumphant designation as of mid-November when the community received a historical marker from the Georgia Historical Society, a new multi-million dollar Pin Point Heritage Museum, and a 30-minute documentary video.
Nobody saw this coming. As a member of the Chatham County Historic Preservation Commission that designated the small coastal community of Pinpoint as the first historic district in unincorporated Chatham County, I definitely thought the community deserved local recognition, but was almost surprised when it actually went through. As an architectural historian, I recorded, and included the Varn Oyster Factory in my guide, Savannah and the Lowcountry (1997), and many tours, but I always sensed it was just unfortunately sinking in the mud like so many others like it.
Why is this place important? There is certainly no refined or dignified “disegno” there that’s for sure. Traditional aesthetic judgment would entirely dismiss it. It would be easy to point to native son Clarence Thomas, now a chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, but that would only be part of the answer. It’s certainly valuable property looking over open marsh to the same views that the Landings enjoy, but real estate interests would only celebrate this community as a tear-down.
What Pin Point and the Pin Point Heritage Museum do offer is a classic opportunity for understanding architecture as existing in multiple spheres of significance. While fancy drawing leaves this place cold (and indeed ignores most of the built environment), it is vital nevertheless. A famous individual may have been born here, but no single person could give this place its vitality. There is a larger story of many people, a community, activities and enterprises. Or put another way, Pin Point’s significance comes from its being part of many stories relating to many people over long periods of time.
*** Story 1 ***
It really is an interesting Lowcountry coastal community, but perhaps not in a picture-book manner. Thought of by most as a residential village today, it has actually always been part of a commercial economy. A. S. Varn Sr. founded the A.S. Varn & Son Oyster Seafood Factory in 1926 as part of the rise of the commercial trade in canned oysters, aided by gasoline powered engines. Ironically, the ease of using gas engines helped centralize much oyster processing in bigger places like Thunderbolt rather than far flung settings, but in this case it helped an independent producer get a foothold in the industry. Pin Point gained a livelihood. Ironically again, the same petro-chemicals (or similar ones) that helped make Savannah the cove or canned oyster capital of the world ultimately also shut down oystering by the mid 20th century. In 1971, A. S. Varn Jr. filed a federal suit seeking to halt the use of mirex, a fire ant spray claiming that it killed oysters and blue crabs.
While seafood harvesting declined in fits and starts, suburbanization rose up with a bang. In 1967, the new Diamond Causeway led to the just built Skidaway Island Bridge transforming a remote barrier island into the Landings, an exclusive gated community courtesy of the Branniger Corporation, the real estate arm of Georgia Pacific. Similar transformations occurred across the Low Country, with Hilton Head Island’s development being the most dramatic. In 1973, A. S. Varn Jr. filed a suit in superior court seeking $50,000 in damages to his business caused by silt buildup caused by the Skidaway Island Bridge. Desegregation also played a part as it tended to spark the growth of exclusive institutions as well as neighborhoods among affluent whites, while it undercut majority black neighborhoods and businesses further fracturing Pin Point’s traditional community strengths. The Varn Oyster Factory closed officially in 1985. Pin Point was well on its way to being another Hilton Head.
*** Story 2 ***
Out of the hard scrabble of the oyster days of Pin Point rose a shining pearl. The appointment of Pin Point native Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court in 1991 shed light on the small and eroding community. Ironically, Thomas, born in 1948, actually only lived there until school age when his mother moved him to Florance Street on the western edge of Savannah, an area he described as hating—“there were no cousins there.” For years you could enter Pin Point and pass a small sign indicating that it was home to a Supreme Court justice, and then drive through wondering what in this world of squat bungalows and single-wides related to him. Pin Point was the world he narrowly escaped.
Also ironically, it is not just Thomas’s accomplishments but also his notoriety that have risen to tell this story. Hurt by the stigma of being seen as the product of affirmative action, and crucified in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, he has distinguished himself as taking the most extreme originalist perspective on case after case before the Court. Such advocacy has drawn critics and supporters. The billionaire Harlan Crow, a member of a Texas family that was once the largest landlord in the nation, actually built the Pin Point Heritage Museum. Crow is a particularly active supporter of Thomas and conservative causes in general and previously donated generous sums of money for the Clarence Thomas Room at the historically segregated Henry Street Carnegie Library, where a young Clarence Thomas had spent many hours studying, as well as smaller gifts for Thomas such as Frederick Douglass’s bible. Thomas’s personal role in fostering the charitable donations, and his clear participation in accepting the very public honors are both aspects that are not traditionally allowed for Supreme Court justices. Thomas’s wife is most in the news lately as she leads organizations that are actively promoting causes argued at the Supreme Court. She was present at the entire sequence of Pin Point celebration events at her husband’s or her step-mother’s side, and the couple’s physical and ideological closeness makes some question his ability to be judicially impartial.
*** Story 3 ***
But Pin Point’s celebration is much bigger than Clarence Thomas, even if his notoriety helped put it on the map. Due to increasing acceptance of African-American history, Pin Point is now officially accepted as part of Georgia’s Heritage and is even starting to be appreciated as part of Atlantic and even World History. Founded by African slaves who moved from Ossabaw Island after the end of the Civil War, Pin Point is now a centerpiece of the National Park Service’s new Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a just recently appreciated landscape of retained Africanisms running from Georgetown, North Carolina to northern Florida. In this community, Clarence Thomas was “Boy,” just one of what seem like a hundred cousins making their own games, eating their own foods, singing in their own church, and speaking in their own language. Thomas described going north to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts and later Yale Law School as being an endeavor to “conquer the [English] language.” Dr. Emory Campbell, a Gullah from Hilton Head was another that made the trek from coastal barrier island to a pinnacle of professional achievement and has devoted his life to telling the story. White historians like Dr. Barbara Fertig have joined the long line of scholars going the other way actively uncovering Africanisms.
And so, Pin Point is a special place, but what special quality is most significant? A people and a place whose history, whose very existence was for so long ignored if not actively maligned has become imperative to appreciate for a modern awareness of our—all our–places in the lowcountry. But which story is most important?
It is fair to say that traditional architectural history has not caught up with these multiple webs of significance. Too often we still search for the isolated mansion or the equally precious piece of folk tradition, or just a well maintained building with a nice neat style. How irrelevant to the history that was and is really being made! It is so refreshing that we can appreciate the greatness of Savannah not just by admiring a square in the historic district, or by looking at a particularly shiny gold dome, or a tall spire but by looking at another center out on the edge of the marsh in the shadow of the causeway but very alive in the world of history.
What is there to learn? Clearly, there is no single, universal “art” defining a pure and perfect value, but rather there are multiple cultural values invested in any and all works of art or buildings or settlements by all the people that interact with it, including those who preserve it, and think about it, and write about it. What really is an oblong concrete building sticking out into the marsh with a row of scoops along the top of the outside wall, and a series of angled shoots along the base? Who is the artist of this creation? Arguably it is Algernon Varn, the 3rd generation of the Varn family who resisted development to keep the property intact. Equally worthy is Harlan Crowe. Thomas referred to him again and again as “just a good man” who he had tried hard to dissuade from engaging in the project. Or is it Varn Sr. or Thomas’s mother who worked in the factory picking crab? Clearly Thomas is a convenient figure-head, but is this museum his work? Ultimately, and I think very elegantly, the museum sidesteps the question and celebrates the people and culture of Pin Point as a whole in all its diversity. But is this accurate?
Perhaps it is best to end with just one of the more dramatic intersections of history and culture that Pin Point showcases: the formidable honorable Clarence Thomas stomping his feet and clapping loudly with his immediate and extended family to the joyful call-and-response of the Macintosh County Shouters for all the world to see. The most traditional of Gullah with sticks and bandanas and overalls face to face with one of the most powerful intellects of the law coming together to share a dream that a defunct factory can be born again as first-class heritage tourism, and that it in turn can help revive a community in peril—amazing and for many reasons!