Preservationist, suffragist. Frost was born in Charleston on January 21, 1873, the daughter of Dr. Francis LeJau Frost and Rebecca Brewton Pringle. With ties to several distinguished Charleston families dating back to the eighteenth century, Frost seemed destined to be a lady of leisure following a privileged childhood and two years (1889–1891) at the prominent Saint Mary’s Episcopal boarding school in Raleigh, North Carolina. However, with the decline of the Frost and Pringle rice plantations on the Santee River and the failure of her father’s fertilizer business, Frost learned basic stenographic skills and entered the workplace: initially as secretary to the architect Bradford Lee Gilbert, designer of the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition of 1901–1902; then for sixteen years, until 1918, as court stenographer for the U.S. District Court.
Interest in social concerns and women’s issues quickened in this period, and Frost, who never married, became actively involved in women’s club work and the women’s suffrage movement. As first president of the Charleston Equal Suffrage League, Frost aligned her organization with Alice Paul and the militant wing of the movement, the National Woman’s Party, in supporting the federal suffrage amendment and, later, the Equal Rights Amendment. However, Frost’s passion was historic preservation and saving Charleston’s old houses and architecture from demolition and out-of-state purchasers, a cause that constitutes her greatest legacy.
In 1909 Frost quietly entered Charleston’s real estate market, borrowing money to purchase two small properties on Tradd Street, the city’s oldest thoroughfare. In short order her crusade became a consuming preservation drive to rehabilitate from slum status the picturesque houses of East Tradd, St. Michael’s Alley, and the section of East Bay Street that later became famous as Rainbow Row. In the process, she displaced numerous black Charlestonians from the lower peninsula. Financially overextended, Frost frequently owed key creditors such as Irénée DuPont, a family friend whose loans insured that the three Frost sisters gained sole ownership of their grand birthplace, the Miles Brewton House.
To save another endangered landmark, the Joseph Manigault House, Frost in 1920 founded what became the Preservation Society of Charleston, one of the nation’s oldest such groups. She was an early advocate of zoning to preserve old iron- and woodwork, and she championed Charleston’s zoning ordinance of 1931, which created the nation’s first historic district. She served as zoning monitor on the Board of Adjustment throughout the 1940s. Frost regularly swamped Charleston newspaper editors with letters about preservation goals and needs, and she became celebrated for her public service and quaint eccentricities. Her historic preservation initiatives contributed substantially to the movement that transformed the streets of Charleston and made it a national tourist destination. Frost died in the Miles Brewton House on October 6, 1960, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
Bland, Sidney R. Preserving Charleston’s Past, Shaping Its Future: The Life and Times of Susan Pringle Frost. 2d ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Hosmer, Charles B. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926–1949. 2 vols. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.