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Twenty Years of Change in an Extraordinary City 

12-09-2015 17:35

In the fall of my freshman year of college, I returned home to Charleston for the National Trust`s annual meeting. This year I will again return for the Trust meeting, but it is a different city I will be visiting. Here is a city I believe to be unlike any other city in our nation, with a charm and character that are unique. Here are priceless, irreplaceable national treasures. Charleston became one of the few true urban communities of the colonial South, and found throughout the city is a perfectly extraordinary array of architecture representing many periods and all economic levels.

How has preservation changed in Charleston in the twenty years since the 1970 Preservation Conference? Travel and Camera magazine that year reported that "progress has dealt gently with this small seaport city" and described the park at the Battery as "an eminently pleasant place." Has preservation changed as much as the park at the Battery, where today`s onslaught of summer traffic requires police barricades to prevent left turns?

First, let me sprint through a century of preservation in Charleston to bring you to 1970.

It is impossible to single out a time when preservation as a movement began in Charleston. After the Civil War the city was impoverished and, with a few exceptions, languished in economic stagnation until World War II. As a consequence, many buildings were "preserved by poverty." But there was more to it. As early as the 1850s, the novelist William Gilmore Simms noted in Harper`s that Charlestonians not only spent a lot of money on new buildings, but also spent a great deal on "fixing up the old." In the 1890s a number of buildings were constructed, and many buildings on King Street received new Victorian facades. Nevertheless, numerous old buildings were intentionally preserved.

Charleston`s residents seem to have always had what has been called an "emotional investment" in their city. It is clear from many sources that, though Charleston was poor, even in times of prosperity the value of her older dwellings and public buildings was appreciated and efforts were made to balance out new development. Isn`t that what we today call a preservation ethic?

This ethic was articulated in 1920 when the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings--now the Preservation Society of Charleston---was organized to preserve not only individual structures, but the "atmosphere" of the city as well. It was recognized that preservation did not preclude growth and progress. In 1931, when Charleston became the first American city to create a special zoning ordinance for its "Old and Historic District" prompted when filling stations replaced valuable old structures, the goal was to preserve the district`s atmosphere and to maintain it as a living, functioning city for its residents, not to create a museum section.

This principle was reiterated in 1945 by the committee that was to become the Historic Charleston Foundation in the statement, "Charleston differs in a great many respects from Williamsburg, principally in that it must always remain a living and growing city."

The Historic Charleston Foundation hit the ground running. Established in 1947, by the mid-1950s it had pioneered two important ideas: the rehabilitation of a neighborhood as a whole rather than as scattered houses, and the creation of a revolving fund that would finance this rehabilitation. The revolving fund, now familiar to us all, became a staple element of local preservation efforts throughout the country.

During the 1960s Charleston developed yet more creative responses to difficult preservation problems. The Foundation`s Ansonborough project established area rehabilitation as a preservation technique on an unprecedented scale. The Broad Street Beautification Plan for the office-lined thoroughfare was implemented, and East Bay Street`s wholesale establishments were well into a program of adaptive use as offices. Meanwhile, local house museums and tours of the city`s historic areas continued to hold a national appeal.

In 1966 the city`s historic district ordinance was revised and strengthened, and the district was expanded from 144 to 412 acres. It subsequently became one of the first districts listed in the newly created National Register of Historic Places. The state highway department`s proposed James Island Bridge, which would have brought traffic directly into the historic district, became the Advisory Council`s first major Section 106 case. Today the bridge is under construction in a less detrimental location.

With all of the successes, however, there were many failures. Hundreds of buildings were proposed for demolition each year, and many vanished. As the program for the 1970 meeting pointed out, "Preservation here is everybody`s business, though everyone is not always in agreement."

So we have sprinted to 1970, the year of the National Trust`s meeting and the fiftieth anniversary of the Preservation Society. In the 1970s and 1980s, Charleston continued its successful implementation of innovative preservation techniques. In 1971 the Foundation joined forces with the city and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), and hired planners to complete an architectural inventory of the city (updating a 1941 inventory) and to advise on planning for the historic district. From this came a second increase in the locally zoned historic district to approximately 790 acres, also listed in the National Register.

The expansion of the College of Charleston was accomplished without ravaging the center of town, and the city`s preservation organizations gave close scrutiny to the expansion of the Medical University of South Carolina. In the spotlight of national attention, the imminent high rises were twice kept away from important downtown sites, and compatible developments built in their stead. In the late 1970s, the Historic Charleston Foundation, with HUD and SHPO grants, became involved in directing rehabilitation designed to stabilize integrated historic Charleston neighborhoods without displacing local residents.

In December 1978, the city adopted a height ordinance, the purpose of which was to help control the skyline of Charleston by limiting building height on most of the peninsula, including, for the first time, in extensive commercial districts.

Earlier in 1978 the well-publicized controversy over the Charleston Convention Center had begun. The project was conceived to revitalize King Street; however, its initial design called for the demolition of a large number of buildings and construction of a massive high rise, which preservationists agreed were unacceptable. There was strong disagreement among preservationists over tactics, and the issue polarized the general community as well. Ultimately the concerns of the local groups resulted in a significant scaling down, and the project was realized in Charleston Place, better known as the Omni, which serves as the headquarters of this year`s National Preservation Conference. Certainly, few would suggest design awards for the project, but it has accomplished its revitalization goal. Henry Cauthen, the former director of the Preservation Society, which fervently opposed the project, told me recently wrote to the mayor acknowledging the success of the project for King Street. Thus have wounds healed.

Shortly after construction on the Omni had begun, the General Services Administration proposed a major addition to the 1890s post office and courthouse in the heart of the lower peninsula. Local preservationists, the city, and the SHPO office worked together to develop an acceptable design.

I cannot write about preservation in Charleston without mentioning the importance of my mother, Frances Edmunds, to the city`s success in the field. She served as the director of the Historic Charleston Foundation during some of its most productive years, retiring in 1985. About that time, the Foundation opened what was named the Frances R. Edmunds Preservation Center, a resource center for the city that provides a small preservation library and a much-used lecture facility where specialized workshops and seminars are held.

Another significant project of the 1980s was the Calhoun Street Study. Calhoun Street runs from river to river, from the highway spaghetti on the Ashley to the proposed aquarium on the Cooper, and is expected to become the city`s major east-west thoroughfare. Now in effect, the plan provides a long-range guide for the city`s regulatory commissions and includes design standards and land-use guidelines for future development. Lawrence A. Walker, the executive director of the Foundation, regards the Calhoun Street Study as but one example of positive change since 1970--that more attention is being given to land-use planning by the city.

Individual structures continued to attract the attention of Charleston`s preservation efforts. Drayton Hall, considered the oldest---and finest--example of residential Georgian Palladian architecture in America, was purchased and turned over to the National Trust, and the Foundation in the last decade has saved landmark buildings by purchasing them when no one else would and holding them until the right owner came along. Two cases in point are the 1772 William Gibbes House and Mulberry Plantation, said to date from 1714. Both were on the market at high prices (Mulberry eventually sold for $2.8 million), not selling, and threatened with subdivision into condominiums. Today both are single-family residences of sympathetic owners. The city plans to restore its Middleton-Pinckney House--long the waterworks office--as the Charleston Arts Center, a home for the city`s arts organizations. In 1988 many groups cooperated in a fund-raising drive to purchase Snee Farm, a National Historic Landmark and the former home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, when it was threatened with development. Now held by the National Park Service, Snee Farm will be opened as a national historic site.

In 1989 a second proposed expansion of the National Register historic district was rejected. Most of the expansion (440 acres) involved residential sections north of the present National Register district 1790 acres). The incident was unexpected and complicated. The city had eagerly sought an even larger expansion in hopes of benefitting from the potential for economic development in commercial areas. An inventory was conducted with a large SHPO grant, and the expansion was supported by the National Trust`s Southern Regional Office, by the Preservation Society, and by the Historic Charleston Foundation. These groups pointed out that Register listing, particularly when used in concert with the low income housing credit, could encourage the creation of low-income housing.

After the nomination had been completed, residents voiced their fears that historic-district designation would make these areas more attractive to developers. Emotions ran high and misunderstanding ran rampant.

Following months of consideration, the city reached its decision. George L. Vogt, SHPO of South Carolina, explains, "When the city reversed its ground and asked the SHPO not to nominate, we did not want to stuff it down their throat. We were in an exposed position; we had provided funding at the city`s request. But what concerned us most was that there was not a consensus among residents of the proposed district." Therefore, the SHPO also reversed its opinion and opposed the nomination. "We opposed the nomination because of local sentiment," Vogt says. "We think it was the right decision given that it was well past the point of no return."

Property owners in the expansion area who had taken anticipatory tax credits appealed to the Keeper of the National Register, who made a formal Determination of Eligibility and instructed the SHPO to nominate the district and to proceed with the legal notices for nomination. Notarized objections were subsequently received from more than 50 percent of the property owners, and the responsibility fell on the SHPO to certify the numbers. This proved to be a difficult and precedent-setting legal situation regarding questions of who actually could cast a vote as an owner. For example, the charters of the Knights of Columbus and numerous other organizations required individual examination to determine how many individuals were legal owners. The SHPO incurred legal costs of just under $30,000.

So what went wrong? The SHPO and mayor agree that there should have been a more far-reaching program of education and involvement of the residents at the outset, when the survey was begun in 1984. The objection to the expansion was not anticipated, in part because of the city`s initial eagerness to expand.

The expansion area`s population is predominantly black and low- to middle-income. Eventually, somehow, the issue became one of whether the city was forcing the designation on black residents. Additionally, there were the terrible, and typical, confusions about the National Register and local zoning. People felt that their taxes would double, that they would be forced by the Board of Architectural Review to complete certain repairs, that any work on their houses would require an architect, that developers would take over rental property.

In the end, the mayor avoided alienating Charleston`s sizable black population, and residents feel they made a point about their involvement in public decisions affecting them. Still not addressed is the issue of owners who completed certified rehabilitations with the expectation that the district was to be listed, yet who find themselves unable to take the tax credit.

Charleston has experienced diverse and significant changes since 1970. We all know it is difficult--impossible, really--to isolate preservation from social and economic issues. But if we addressed preservation in the strictest sense, the biggest change that has taken place since 1970 is that twenty years ago, preservationists were still entrenched in an unrelenting battle to save buildings from demolition. Today that is not the case.

Without doubt the most significant impact exerted on preservation has been the increase in tourism. With this increase in tourism have come prosperity; additional residents; traffic congestion; numerous and extensive rehabilitations; adaptive uses of buildings in which to feed, entertain, house, and sell to the visitors; several parking garages (five more recently having been approved for construction downtown); a multitude of hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts; and numerous new restaurants, the majority of them good.

Also accompanying this increase in tourism has been a change in residents` way of life. Charleston has never been a museum city, but one in which an open garden gate was a traditional invitation to the tourist to enter for a look. Yet today, sharing their small city are 20 horsedrawn carriages where in 1970 there was one; thirty small buses and vans (there are 11 bus companies certified by the city to conduct tours); eight charter buses an hour, and more than 250 licensed tour guides, some garbed in historic military costumes of varying accuracy. Residents enjoy the tourist-generated prosperity but resent the crunch of traffic choking the city`s quaint streets, the loss of residential privacy, the stench of horses.

Equally significant have been the efforts of the mayor. In 1975 Joseph P. Riley, Jr., became mayor. Riley succeeded a long-term mayor who, in characteristic South Carolina fashion, eschewed federal money in order to dodge the "strings" attached to it. Mayor Riley took precisely the opposite tack. In his fifteen years in office Riley has brought in money from a variety of federal agencies, principally for the purposes of revitalizing the inner city, serving the tourist, and providing low and moderate-income housing. One of the great achievements of this mayor and his city council has been the scattered-site public housing of prize-winning architectural design.

Several major developments are underway in Charleston today. Recently completed, and an enormous success, is the Waterfront Park on the banks of the Cooper River. The park is part of the mayor`s comprehensive program for the revitalization of the city`s east waterfront. North of the park, the ubiquitous festival marketplace is proposed, which Mayor Riley explains will "allow a natural ending of our CBD" on the waterfront. At the end of Calhoun Street, the Fort Sumter tour-boat facility and an aquarium will be created.

As Ernest Wood states in his June 1990 article in Southern Living, "Cities too often have simply parroted each other`s successes, erecting aquariums, festival markets, and other similar projects rather than drawing from their own individual roots." Indeed, aquariums have become so popular that two pages of a July Newsweek were devoted to them: "...for $40 million or so any place can have a first-rate aquarium...." Chattanooga, Corpus Christi, New Orleans, and Chicago are among cities buying into this current rage in tourism development. Charleston has added itself to that list.

These developments are the solutions of Everytown. Charleston has never been Everytown. It has prided itself on that to a fault. And now here it is copying what many people call "The Baltimore Formula."

Of concern in Charleston is the aquarium`s downtown location, where it will attract even greater numbers of tourists. The aquarium was opposed, unsuccessfully, by both of the city`s preservation organizations. Plans are already under review by the zoning and architectural boards.

More controversial is the waterfront hotel proposed for land adjoining the new Waterfront Park. Vacant since around 1955, the site has seen various proposals tossed around, mostly for residential development. A year or more ago a developer dropped the residential proposal and pressed for a luxury hotel. Local sentiment reflects a concern that a hotel there is the wrong use on the wrong site. As proposed, the hotel would require three or four buildings separated by three small city streets. Thus elevated pedestrian bridges are proposed to carry guests and services from building to building. To complicate the issue, only a few years ago the city passed an ordinance protecting the city`s remaining vistas to the water.

With the mayor`s endorsement the developer and his architect went to the zoning board seeking a variance from the vista-protection ordinance. The variance was granted. Another variance to the height ordinance allows a height of fifty-five feet. The design of the bridges is unresolved at this point, though they are proposed to be eighteen feet above ground, allowing beneath a view of Mt. Pleasant across the Cooper River. The Board of Architectural Review has approved the preliminary proposal.

Most agree with the mayor`s endeavor to revitalize this area, once so undeveloped it was where my father taught me to drive. However, the majority of preservationists there would prefer residential development of the land rather than construction of another inn, and fear the precedent-setting obstruction of the vista to the river and low-country islands beyond. Wait, Charleston. Wait a little longer until the right development comes along--Charleston`s new prosperity will bring offers not possible during the previous 35 years.

John Hildreth laments the loss of so many tile roofs since he moved to Charleston just ten years ago. First preservationist for the Preservation Society and currently as the program associate in the National Trust`s Southern Regional Office, Hildreth is concerned that roofers simply tell owners their tile roofs cannot be repaired. Hildreth says he sees them "slapping tar all over a tile roof--that`s sad."

It is sad. What is worse is that it is characteristic of the quality of the rehabilitation work going on in the city today. This should be surprising to you. How could Charleston, the trailblazer of preservation, be anything but a model of expertise in its rehabs? I don`t understand it either. It is tragic--genuinely painful--to see the level of craftsmanship in the city today. I am not being a purist--those of you attending the meeting will see it: the loss of traditional roofing materials, the amount of Portland cement, bright white mortar, and shameful mud-pie repointing going on today. And disc sanding. (Not explored here is the most notorious recent visitor to Charleston: Hurricane Hugo. The problems discussed here existed before Hugo, and the Board of Architectural Review was steadfast in requiring post Hugo roofs to duplicate the materials of the earlier roof. I will leave to others the impact of Hugo on buildings, on rehabilitation practices, and on attitudes.)

The craftsmanship issue is one of the major preservation problems confronting Charleston today. Disc sanding is a prime example of improper techniques in practice. Disc sanding is a highly destructive practice that, fortunately, does not seem to have infected other cities. Hence some of you are asking, "What is disc sanding?" It is the removal of paint from wood surfaces by means of a power-operated, rotary-disc sander. As used in Charleston, it removes all of the paint and a substantial amount of the building fabric as well. A building is noticeably--and irreparably--altered by the introduction of uneven circular gouges in flat pieces and the flattening out of meticulously handcarved detail.

Disc sanding is not merely an aesthetic issue. Its effects are so detrimental and so conspicuous that I would expect most residents would not even consider allowing a disc sander near their houses. Yet disc sanding is commonly used to remove paint not only from plain weatherboards but from beaded siding, from carved moldings around door panels, even from delicately carved rope-work molding of early door surrounds. It is not restricted to a few isolated cases. Disc sanding has become the predominant method of paint preparation in Charleston today, especially in the lower peninsula area where most of the grander residential buildings are located. During a study conducted approximately four years ago, conservationist George Fore located just two 18th-century buildings in Charleston that had not been disc sanded.

There is, however, a ray of hope. Recently there have been weekly articles and editorials published in the local newspaper about the dangers of lead poisoning from disc sanding. In addition to destroying historic fabric, disc sanding fills the air with particles of lead dust from the early paints. Many children downtown have been found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, a serious concern, and dogs are said to have died from lead poisoning. The News & Courier, the local newspaper that has long been a staunch supporter of preservation efforts, is calling attention to both the medical and the preservation issues in an effort to bring a halt to disc sanding.

Both disc sanding and the city`s poor repointing are symptoms of a change in how Charleston deals with its fix-ups. City preservation officer and architect Charles Chase says, "We`ve probably lost more significant interiors in the last ten years than have been lost from the start." Respect for historic fabric seems to be fading. It is not common, but also not rare to see now, after Hugo, Dempsey Dumpsters in the street being filled with components of early interiors. This year I have watched with disbelief as the 1850s interiors of a fine downtown house filled dumpster after dumpster for all to see. Mantels, entire staircases, doors, and other interior detailing of several buildings have been removed and discarded.

Charleston is changing, becoming more like everywhere else. In my discussions with preservationists I heard the term "cutesy" used several times. Cutesy?? In Charleston?? Times have changed. More serious is the fact that most preservationists and many others fear the city is losing its charm, losing the character so many have tried to describe, losing what makes Charleston, "Charleston." Perhaps historic buildings are so abundant they are taken for granted. Perhaps the city`s success with progressive preservation issues has made Charlestonians complacent. John Meffert, the director of the Preservation Society, says that the city`s decades-old effort not to become a museum city seems to be eroding just as our historic fabric is eroding. He sees an irony in that.

Many preservationists are surprised to learn that Charleston`s historic district ordinance is not the exemplary model one might expect from the city that inaugurated the concept 60 years ago. The law gives the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) jurisdiction over the exterior architectural design of structures visible from public streets or sidewalks. It has been revised, once each in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, but has never undergone substantial revision. In the meantime, the field of preservation has matured significantly. Recognizing the need for a new ordinance, the city in the early 1980s hired the National Trust`s Stephen Dennis--who is now with the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Preservation Law--to evaluate it. Dennis studied Charleston`s ordinance and proposed a revised version in 1982 that grants additional--and better defined--powers to the BAR. Yet the new ordinance is still undergoing revision the city and has yet to be adopted.

The sentiment of most preservationists in Charleston is that the current ordinance has been interpreted too conservatively and allows for the consideration of only the appearance of buildings. As Jonathan Poston, the director of programs for the Historic Charleston Foundation, says, "We have an ordinance than can control what color you paint your building, but cannot prevent you from destroying historic fabric." Poston feels strongly that a new ordinance is needed that incorporates provisions for building conservation. Many agree.

Charleston has a serious problem with physical rehabilitation techniques inflicting permanent damage to its buildings, yet the ordinance, as interpreted today, does not grant the BAR the authority to review repointings, preparation for painting, or other "repairs" until the work causes damage and is reported to city preservation officer Charles Chase. Chase can then ask the owner to stop work and proceed in a nondestructive manner. Similarly, the city has a policy of requiring test patches for new brickwork, but this does not apply to repointing.

Additionally, Charleston has no Design Review Guidelines. The BAR operates by tradition and its members are regarded as having the qualifications necessary for responsible administration of its duties. This in contrast to small- and medium sized cities throughout South Carolina that now have in place custom-made review guidelines and strong ordinances written to stand up in court. Small South Carolina towns are astonished when they learn that Charleston has neither.

The problems with the ordinance are not difficult to identify---the need for an updated revised ordinance is manifest. It is the practical application that is difficult. There are 2,800 rated historic buildings in the designated Old and Historic District and an additional 800 in the Old City District (receiving review of demolition). Staffing needs to accomplish adequate review of this number of buildings are enormous. Chase says he could have a staff person working full-time seven days a week on inspections of masonry work alone. The city is making positive strides in that direction. In August of this year a second preservation technician was added to Chase`s staff.

A tougher ordinance alone, however, by will not improve the craftsmanship in Charleston where workers do not know how to deal with historic materials. The situation will not change without education. For several years seminars have been held for masons and woodworkers, but no ongoing training of workers has been attempted.

Accordingly, the city of Charleston is working with the Trident Community Foundation to begin this fall a comprehensive training program for semiskilled and unskilled workers. Similar to an apprentice program, it will place young workers with the more experienced, and train individuals in single trades. Master craftsmen are being brought in to instruct. The program will concentrate on wood, metal, masonry, glass, ironwork, carpentry and finish work, and decorative and flat plasterwork. The goal is to create a body of true craftspersons in the community, and to provide for a permanent crafts education program. The project is being funded by a seed grant from the Getty Foundation, two grants from the National Trust, a grant from Taste of the South (which has been described as a homesick southerners` society in Washington, D.C.), and other funds.

Charleston has a long history. In addition to its three centuries of wars, invasions, fires, disease, bombardments, occupations, defeats, earthquakes, tornadoes, depressions, and, of course, hurricanes, it has weathered several decades of preservation defeats and advancements. The question is how well its buildings can survive the damages being wrought by the many well-intentioned, though misguided, "restorations" underway today.

Preservation in Charleston, however, has a much larger base than it did twenty years ago. My mother points out how much better to be fighting disc sanders than demolitions--at least the buildings are standing, she adds, and maybe in 100 years a new patina will emerge. The broader question is whether the unique charm of the city will succumb to the problems of success.

Publication Date: Fall 1990

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Subtitle:A Native Daughter Reviews the Ways in Which Charleston and the Practice of Preservation There Have Grown
Author(s):Langdon Edmunds Oppermann
Volume:4
Issue:3