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Charleston: Guarding her Customs, Buildings, and Laws 

12-09-2015 17:35

It is no accident that Charleston, South Carolina, is a locus for the modern preservation movement. For nearly 100 years, generations of Charlestonians have been aware of this city’s singular sense of place. Since the turn of the 20th century, individuals, organizations, and government have established and promoted a preservation ethic. The roots of preservation run deep. In 1783, Charleston established itself as a municipal government with the motto: “She guards her customs, buildings and laws.” Early on Charleston embraced one extremely important notion of what a city should be: guardian of its cultural, physical and social structures.

Life during the last quarter of the 18th century was tumultuous for Charlestonians. The fight for independence from Britain took place at its doorstep and made chaos of local governance and its social fabric. Nearly three generations and fewer than 80 years later, Charleston would again be at the center of civil and social unrest. Man’s indiscretions were not the only factor. Loss from natural disasters—fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes—contributed to a heightened awareness of the city’s fragile nature.

Charleston’s unique environment, people, and circumstances contributed to a tradition of preserving and protecting the physical evidence of past generations. Over the past century Charlestonians have moved from saving individual buildings to entire neighborhoods to maintain the city’s unique sense of place.


Early preservation efforts had a specific ideological motivation: saving the city’s remaining colonial era structures for educational purposes. In the early 1900s, Charlestonians like other Americans shared a growing interest in the beginnings of the country. This rise of nationalism is best represented by the efforts of the National Society of Colonial Dames and its sister organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Charleston’s local chapters took up the charge of stimulating interest and pride in the nation through the preservation of the city’s earliest buildings. In 1902 the Colonial Dames acquired the pre-revolutionary powder magazine, one of the oldest remaining structures associated with the permanent settlement of Charleston of 1680. Meanwhile, the DAR acquired the Old Exchange, one of the city’s most prominent buildings, from the federal government. The motivation in both cases was the same: to acquire and preserve those buildings associated with past events which would physically reflect Charleston’s contribution to the development of the nation.

The most notable individual of the time was a real estate agent, Susan Pringle Frost, whose earliest house purchases date to 1911. For nearly nine years she worked independently to save historic residences in the city. In less than a decade of acquiring, repairing and convincing others to purchase, often at loss, it became apparent Frost could not save all that she envisioned. She gathered a group of like-minded citizens, some of whom were relatives of more substantial means, and in 1920 the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings was formally established.

The first major test of the society was the Joseph Manigault House. Designed by Gabriel Manigault and thought to be one of the city’s best examples of the Adam influence, it was to be razed for a gas station. Several private sources stepped forward and helped the society secure the property from immediate threat. Although the young organization could not sustain such a large debt, an anonymous purchase and donation to the Charleston Museum secured the future of one of the city’s most significant private residences. The house opened in 1928 as the city’s first house museum. Notably, the society’s first cause was also the first public solicitation for the preservation of a building in Charleston.

Shortly thereafter, the threat of dismantling the Heyward Washington House interiors, the residence most prominently associated with General George Washington’s 1791 visit to Charleston, stimulated the society’s joint purchase with the Charleston Museum in 1929. Again, a museum open to the public offered an alternative to demolition. Through the dedication of the society, the generosity of private citizens, and the stewardship of the Charleston Museum, the Heyward Washington House continues as a museum for public education.

At the same time Albert Simons, a young architect, decried the loss of architectural materials from private homes. The continued influx of those who bargained for and those who willingly sold architectural features concerned Simons enough to act both locally and nationally. He sought a reprieve for demolitions, recorded interior details, and bargained for local retention of significant features. Simons also sought the assistance of the American Institute of Architects. The AIA responded by initiating a series of publications on historic cities, and in 1927 the first and only volume published in the series, Charleston, South Carolina, brought the city’s historically and architecturally significant contributions into national view.

In the 1920s, supported by the United States Supreme Court Euclid decision which held zoning as a valid municipal police power, cities began to enact local laws regulating property use. In Charleston the city council established a Special Committee on Zoning to draft an ordinance to prohibit specific uses south of Broad Street, then perceived as the city’s heaviest concentration of important historic buildings. Upon adoption of the ordinance, the special committee was permanently established as the Committee on Planning and Zoning, now known as the planning and zoning commission. The use of zoning regulations specifying a city’s historic significance and the importance of protection set the standard for hundreds of cities.


In the next 35 years, historic preservation became a formal, institutionalized ethic. The society continued to stimulate interest in the preservation of historically important buildings and encourage private sector involvement in the preservation of individual structures. Existing civic and newly formed nonprofit organizations focused on increased awareness of good planning and preservation principles; and on securing buildings from in appropriate development through outright ownership. Their efforts, combined with the infusion of preservation objectives into government regulations, would make a significant impact on the city and set an example for the nation.

The work initiated in 1929 by the Special Committee on Zoning resulted in the hiring of a planning consultant, Morris Knowles, from Pittsburgh, Pa. Knowles conducted a survey with the assistance of Albert Simons which identified a relatively small but extremely important area of 18th-century buildings. His work also took into account a variety of planning issues relating to parks, schools and land utilization. Ultimately this work formed the basis for a city plan and zoning ordinance. Although the plan was never adopted, the city council did ratify the proposed zoning ordinance on October 13, 1931. The opening sentence of the ordinance clearly stated its purpose: “In order to promote general welfare through the preservation and protection of historic places and areas of historic interest...”, leaving no doubt as to the city’s intention. For the first time groups or areas of buildings were designated as significant and worthy of protection. The blending of planning and preservation goals was unique and a revolutionary concept for its time.

The city council also created the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) and the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The Board of Architectural Review membership consisted of five citizens with professional affiliations. The ordinance specified appointees from the ranks of the society, Carolina Art Association, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, The Charleston Real Estate Exchange, the local chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, consolidating the interests of the professional and civic institutions of Charleston. Administrative responsibilities resided with the city’s administrative staff. Mayor Thomas P. Stoney noted the “success or failure of the zoning ordinance depended upon the common sense displayed by the personnel of the boards.” The City Engineer was specified as the Administrative Officer for the BAR.

Although the powers of the review board were limited to reviewing demolition requests within the area specified, the formal plan submission and review procedures opened an avenue for negotiation which heretofore never existed. The board’s role was that of a negotiator, working with applicants to find mutually acceptable solutions to design problems.

During the late 30s Charleston utilized federal sources of money for preservation purposes. In 1938 when a tornado struck, federal assistance was used to mitigate the damage to historic structures. The city also used available federal funding under Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide public housing. In 1939 the city razed a number of dilapidated buildings outside the historic district defined by the 1931 ordinance. The most valuable antebellum structures were saved and incorporated into the new multi- family housing project. Although this was the only time the Housing Authority of Charleston restored historic buildings for housing, in subsequent years it rehabilitated the Marine Hospital (1833) by Robert Mills and the adjacent City Jail for administrative functions.

As community interest in historic preservation grew, so did the city’s organizational interests. The Carolina Art Association established an ad hoc committee on preservation and community planning to expand knowledge of the city’s architectural heritage and the importance of preserving its urban structure. To that end Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. consulted with the group in 1940. On his advice the Carolina Art Association inaugurated a citywide survey of historic and architecturally significant buildings. The survey, conducted by Helen Gardner McCormack, included 1,168 buildings.

In 1942 an exhibition of the survey’s findings was mounted at the Gibbes Art Museum entitled “This is Charleston.” Two years later, the Carolina Art Association published the findings of the survey as This Is Charleston, illustrating more than 500 of the surveyed structures. The result was the first publication of an architectural inventory of an American city. This simple idea of monumental proportion had a far-reaching influence on future work in the city, in other cities, and on the formation of the National Register of Historic Places.

The art association’s Committee on Preservation and Community Planning changed its name to the Civic Services Committee in 1942 reflecting its desire to expand its membership and influence. It never found a specific niche or attracted a larger audience, but remained an influential force nonetheless. Interestingly, many of its efforts were funded by grants acquired from organizations outside the city. In 1945 the committee was instrumental in bringing to Charleston Kenneth Chorley, president of Colonial Williamsburg, Inc. In a public speech he planted the seed of what was to become Historic Charleston Foundation, Inc. He pointed out the need for an independent, nongovernmental organization which could set its own agenda without ties to any existing organization or city politics. The result was the establishment of a nonprofit foundation that could own and operate historic sites and provide educational information and assistance to individuals, civic organizations, and local government following the Colonial Williamsburg model. Historic Charleston Foundation, Inc., was chartered in 1947. The Carolina Art Association fostered the new foundation in its early years offering moral support, direction, and office space.

The foundation began a Spring Tour of Homes in 1947 fashioned after those in other southern cities that showcased restored historic sites to visiting tourists. The tours provided a public education opportunity to help fulfill the foundation’s charter responsibilities. More importantly the tours provided much needed income in the years to follow. The house tour director, Frances S. Edmunds, soon became executive director and guided the foundation’s activities for the next 38 years.

The 1950s brought about several preservation crises, as well as a rethinking of the approach to historic preservation. The Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings was renamed the Preservation Society of Charleston, reflecting a broader definition of what was considered important to the community. In 1952 the Bennett Rice Mill (ca.1844) was threatened with demolition for code violations. The Society and Historic Charleston Foundation were able to intercede on behalf of Bennett’s Mill, securing a lease for a nominal sum. Unfortunately, in 1960 Hurricane Donna destroyed the majority of the 1844 masonry structure. Today, the facade stands as a monument in the center of the industrial port area of the city and provides a training function for students studying masonry in a local trades program.

In 1955 the Charleston Orphan House (ca.1792) was torn down to make way for a Sears, Roebuck & Company department store. Although the Charleston Orphan House and its nationally significant chapel did not survive, they have remained a rallying cry of the preservation community for nearly 40 years.

In 1959 Historic Charleston Foundation began to focus on the rehabilitation of entire neighborhoods through an aggressive purchase and resale agenda. It targeted the Ansonborough neighborhood, a fine collection of post-1840 masonry dwellings. The foundation established a revolving fund and options or outright purchases were made with the idea that one or two buildings successfully restored on a street would cause others to follow. The foundation stabilized or partially rehabilitated exteriors of the buildings. The foundation placed easements on the properties before resale, establishing control over the rehabilitation and long-term maintenance of the buildings. The buildings were marketed to individuals or families who would take up residence. The program gained momentum and dilapidated and often abandoned tenements gave way to single family dwellings. This innovative program added a significant new dimension to the way historic preservation was accomplished in Charleston. Although the need to react to immediate threats remained, preservation organizations were now taking a pro-active, entrepreneurial role within the limits of available funding.

In 1959 the city council revised the historic zoning ordinance for the first time, granting the BAR powers over demolitions and the ability to review exterior alterations to any pre-1860 building, as well as to any building within the Old and Historic Charleston district. Although no additional area was added to the board’s jurisdiction, the ordinance gave the BAR a voice.

1966-1989: MATURATION

Charleston in the 1960s struggled with many of the same social and economic issues as other southern cities, the least of which was the need for inner-city economic revitalization. The Timrod and Charleston Hotels were demolished for more modern public and private buildings. The Charleston Hotel’s impressive facade was replaced with a roadside motel in the heart of the city. These losses, however, were overshadowed by the transformation of the St. Johns Hotel. A group of investors, including Richard Jenrette, purchased and restored the failed hotel. A fire destroyed the majority of the building during its rehabilitation, but the group persevered and opened the hotel as The Mills House in 1970. This major rehabilitation project placed historic preservation squarely into Charleston’s economic redevelopment equation .

Public sector improvements of the time were not quite as kind. In 1967, the city of Charleston under Mayor Samuel Gaillard supported the removal of historic buildings for a new civic auditorium and meeting hall to bring conventions and entertainment downtown. The Preservation Society and Historic Charleston Foundation moved eight of the threatened structures to appropriate infill sites throughout the city and placed the buildings up for sale.

Conversely, Mayor Gaillard and the city council voted to expand the boundaries of the Old and Historic District, nearly tripling its size, to an east-west line that included one-half of the peninsula’s land mass. All the buildings south of the recently constructed Septima Clark Expressway (US Highway 17) fell under the jurisdiction of the BAR, with the added power to deny demolition permanently.

In 1970 the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) sought to expand its highway system west across the Ashley River. The preservation community feared the expansion would have a detrimental effect on the Old and Historic Charleston National Register District (designated in 1966). After the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation determined an adverse effect for the proposed James Island Bridge, SCDOT mitigated the effect by terminating the bridge improvement to the edge of the Ashley River at the end of Calhoun Street, away from the boundaries of the historic district.

Such public sector struggles identified the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the city’s resources. Not until the adoption of the Feiss-Wright-Anderson Survey and Preservation Plan in 1974 was a comprehensive architectural inventory, ranking of buildings, and area plan available to the public. The first inventory since the 1944 Carolina Art Association effort, the inventory identified more than 2,800 structures. The preservation plan became the centerpiece for planning and zoning efforts on the peninsula for the next two decades. It recommended a downtown revitalization strategy and stronger enforcement of building codes and height restrictions. It also stimulated the city council to extend the Board of Architectural Review’s controls further up the peninsula.

The election of Joseph P. Riley, Jr. as mayor in the 1970s has had a lasting effect on this historic city. A Charleston native, son of a successful real estate and insurance businessman, graduate of The Citadel, lover of history, the arts, architecture and his city, Riley utilized the unique characteristics of Charleston as a magnet for needed economic development. At the same time he understood the need to maintain the high quality of design and construction reflected in the city’s historic architecture. He also displayed a very keen sense of urban design and planning that would maintain the fabric of the city. From the beginning, his administration embraced an aggressive agenda of stimulating a city that was supported by a large military establishment (Navy and Air Force), constant port traffic, and a small tourist economy. It was not enough, however, to attract the kind of money needed to reinstate Charleston as one of the most significant and important cities along the Atlantic coast.

The city commissioned Barton-Aschman Associates to develop a commercial revitalization plan for the historic commercial core of the peninsula. Noting the need for a new economic stimulant, the study provided Riley the needed support to begin his first major development project. The young and energetic Riley sought out private development to bolster the city’s economy. Fearing that businesses would further abandon the city for the suburbs, as so many cities had experienced in recent years, he decided to create the needed stimulant in the commercial core. In 1978 the city announced that a hotel/convention complex, to be called Charleston Center, would be constructed on a blighted block at the most critical commercial corner in the city. The city government acquired several million dollars in HUD Urban Development Action Grant funding for the project.

The proposed complex split the city’s preservation community in half. Those in favor saw the development as the centerpiece of much-needed revitalization. Opponents saw it as old style urban renewal that would destroy the quality and character of the historic city. Questions over the long-term effect of the project beleaguered the city, developer, and architects for years. Finally after several developers, architects, and a myriad of lawsuits, compromises, and design changes, the center opened eight years later as Charleston Place. The final plan included a 600-room mid-block hotel, meeting/conference facility, and retail shops along the commercial street frontage. It also restored a city block of 19th-century cast-iron storefronts and returned to private ownership property not needed for the development.

A year later preservationists again had to battle large-scale development. In the shadow of Charleston Place a local private developer sought to demolish the 1938 Art Deco Riviera Theater for a retail/office building. Preservationists collected more than 5,000 signatures against the project and presented the petition at the Board of Architectural Review hearing. More than 200 individuals attended the hearing to urge denial. In a unanimous decision, the board denied outright the loss of a significant landmark. This decision reflected the change in the community’s attitude toward what was considered historic in a city that for decades had limited itself to protecting only the earliest of buildings and sites.

The following year, in spite of this victory, the city council voted against a proposal to expand the National Register district in response to community opposition. The expansion would have included buildings south of the east-west boundary created by the Crosstown Expressway. Residents feared gentrification as a result of the designation and were confused about the role the local Board of Architectural Review would have with this national designation. Although there had been scattered interest in utilization of tax incentives in the area, a local developer attempted to force the issue of designation. His efforts failed to persuade the SHPO to go against the local recommendation. Although the area would not carry the national recognition that it deserved, the city council amended the zoning ordinance once again to expand the role of the BAR to review all new construction within the proposed boundaries.

A year and a half later a greater challenge threatened Charleston’s historic resources. During the early morning hours of September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck the South Carolina coast northeast of the peninsula. The hurricane affected 85 percent of the city’s properties. Immediately, preservation organizations formed a consortium which included the Preservation Society, Historic Charleston Foundation, the Charleston Museum, the southern regional office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and city planners. This self-initiated group assessed damage to buildings within the historic district, collected and identified significant architectural elements for salvage, and established weatherization and stabilization procedures. The group disseminated information to property owners, coordinated the efforts of volunteers from the National Park Service and the American Institute of Architects, and served as a clearinghouse for suppliers, vendors, and manufacturers of building materials.

The city refused to reduce or diminish its requirements for compliance with local building codes and the BAR did not reduce its standards or relinquish the right of approval for changes within the historic district. An average year prior to the storm netted approximately 600 submissions for review before the BAR. Following the storm, the number of submissions doubled and remained constant for three consecutive years.

The battle over the expansion of the National Register district was set aside in the struggle to save the city’s historic resources. Uninsured or under-insured property owners cited economic hardship and demanded substitute materials and relief from standard construction practices. The BAR, however, emphatically refused to deviate from established standards by unanimous vote. This decision saved countless historic buildings from demolition and inappropriate modification.


Within the past decade renewed emphasis has been placed on the preservation planning process. Although individual sites continue to be regulated within the city’s historic districts, both planners and preservationists give greater importance to historic preservation in rapidly changing urban and rural areas not regulated by the BAR. Recent studies and plans adopted by the city council have incorporated historic resource and environmental protection as leading priorities as a result of citizen input.

South Carolina now requires a historic preservation component in the legally mandated comprehensive planning process. Charleston 2000: The City of Charleston’s Comprehensive Plan clearly spells out historic preservation goals and objectives as a major component. Implementation strategies of all city plans since 1990 have taken into account historic resource protection through appropriate land use and accompanying new construction controls.


Since the city’s incorporation 215 years ago, Charlestonians have been aware of the need to preserve its urban environment. For nearly a century, citizens have acted to preserve the city’s most important buildings. And for the past 55 years urban design and planning have been a means to historic preservation. The work of individuals, organizations, and government have all contributed to the preservation of the city’s resources. More importantly it is the respect and cooperation each has shown to the other that makes not only the process but the result unique. It is not a collection of buildings or the city’s urban structure that has made this city successful. It is its people.

Publication Date: Fall 1998


Author(s):Charles Edwin Chase

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