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Alumni

A Matter of Place

September-October 2001

Eason Cross '47, M.Arch. '51, has an architectural project in mind, although he may not be able to get to it as soon as he would like. He wants to build a library and information center in what used to be the town of Purysburg, South Carolina, settled by 600 poor Swiss Protestants in 1731 and abandoned a century later.

Cross holding commemorative plate
Eason Cross holds a commemorative plate displaying the Purysburg shield as designed by his young daughter.

This is not just another job for an architect who divides his professional attention between his own practice and the presidency of Virginia Architects' Accord, a group practice that Cross helped found in his home state. Instead, the South Carolina project is part of an effort by the Purysburg Preservation Foundation, of which Cross is director and founder, to "make Purysburg more visible." The town, whose name commemorates its founder, Jean Pierre de Pury of Neuchatel, Switzerland, has disappeared almost completely from the banks of the Savannah River and the site is in danger of being lost, Cross says, under the sprawl of "single-family houses, where people just come to enjoy the river." He talks with just a hint of envy about the community center in nearby Ebenezer which has brought new attention to that town's early colony of settlers from Salzburg, Austria. Once Purysburg's sister town, and only a river's crossing away, Ebenezer is now much more widely known.

Although Purysburg itself has disappeared, the descendants of its settlers are still found throughout South Carolina; they include, for example, the present governor, Jim Hodges. Cross himself is not a descendant. His involvement with the former Swiss colony and the birth of the preservation foundation can be traced to a 1986 meeting between Cross's close friend Dorothy Davis-Dodge, the descendent of a Purysburg settler, and Jean Jacques de Pury, a descendant of the founder. The chance meeting led to regular exchange visits, in which Cross and his wife, Diane, took part, enjoying "a royal welcome" in Switzerland and helping to host de Purys in South Carolina.

In 1996, after the deaths of Davis-Dodge and de Pury, Cross had to take over. "I was in touch with both of them, and the initiative was left in my hands," he says. He went through the legal process of establishing an official foundation and ever since has been actively involved in trying to bring together more Purysburg descendants, organizing regular Swiss-American exchanges, and recovering the lost history of the Purysburg settlement. Cross considers the hoped-for information center an important part of the effort, especially since "all that remains of Purysburg is a jug well and a cemetery." As he sees it, an information center that serves as a focal point for tourism will keep Purysburg on the map and "remind the writers of history, mostly New Englanders, that significant events in American history occurred below the James River!"

~Diana Kudayarova