Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Whole Place Preservation: The Ashley River Region and the Watson Hill Campaign 

12-09-2015 17:35

George McDaniel, executive director of Drayton Hall (a National Trust Historic Site), will never forget the day in the spring of 2005 when he got the call from Bo and Mickey Barry, two longtime residents of the Ashley River Region and good friends to Drayton Hall. Mickey tearfully explained that the couple had agreed to sell their family property on the Ashley River in Charleston, S.C., only to learn from the local newspaper that the people who purchased it were developers who intended to use it to annex from North Charleston to a large tract of undeveloped timberland on the other side of the Barry property. Mickey exclaimed that she and her husband were now the “Judas Iscariots of the Ashley River Region.”

To understand the Barrys’ emotional phone call, one must know something about the historic region and what this threat of development would mean. A National Register Historic District, the Ashley River Region is a 13-mile corridor northwest of Charleston that is bound by the Ashley River, a State Scenic River,and Ashley River Road. Amidst this still-forested landscape are Drayton Hall, established as a plantation circa 1738 and now a National Historic Landmark; Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark; and the 17th-century Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, all of which border the Ashley River. Archeological sites trace the region’s history from Native American habitation to 18th-century African American settlements to Civil War fortifications.

Concerns about development pressures and lack of coordinated regional planning in the area led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to include the Ashley River Historic District on its list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1995. Charles Duell, president of Middleton Place Foundation, declared,” It’s not just one thing, it’s everything in combination that makes this place a national treasure—and that’s why we have to preserve it.”


The sale of the Barry property was just one aspect of a potentially catastrophic threat to the region. At stake was Watson Hill, a 6,600-acre, 10-square-mile tract of timberlands located in Dorchester County, S.C., just north of Charleston County. Historically rural, Dorchester had become one of the fastest growing counties in the state and its residents were deeply split over issues of suburban growth and private property rights. Watson Hill had been sold by the timber company MeadWestvaco to an out-of-state developer who proposed to build 5,000 homes, a hotel, a golf course, and a commercial center there. The plan would have required construction of a four-lane expressway paralleling the historic Ashley River Road, likely to trigger further suburban sprawl and a massive increase in traffic.

Since Dorchester County prohibited the type of density that the Watson Hill owners wanted, the developers approached the Barrys and attempted to buy their land in order to annex through to the property from North Charleston, whose leaders had promised the developers the higher density their development required. Having discovered the developers’ true intentions and identity, the Barrys courageously backed out of the contract, feeling they had signed it under false pretenses. Realizing that the Barrys were the linchpin in the developers’ plans and that a costly lawsuit might prove too much for them, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Drayton Hall partnered with the Historic Charleston Foundation, Middleton Place, and the Coastal Conservation League to indemnify the Barrys’ legal costs up to one million dollars.

Once the Barrys were comfortable with the indemnification agreement, McDaniel and others knew that they needed to look beyond traditional partnerships if they wanted to fight this behemoth and preserve the context of Drayton Hall. Fortunately for the preservationists in the Ashley River region, they didn’t have to look far to find willing and able partners right in their own backyard.


What follows is a close look at a situation that historic sites across the country have faced for decades. As suburban sprawl continues its march across our landscape, historic sites have been forced to look beyond their gates to confront the roads, strip malls, and housing developments that continue to creep out of our urban centers. Thinking of our historic and cultural resources within the context of their communities and recognizing how sites are affected by their surroundings is the concept behind “Whole Place Preservation.”

In Drayton Hall’s case, McDaniel, a longtime educator, knew that preserving the plantation’s context to support place-based learning was critical to Drayton Hall’s survival long term, and that the Watson Hill development was a major threat to the site’s ability to engage its visitors. “When people visit Drayton Hall, they learn about our site’s history through verbal and written clues, obviously. But perhaps most importantly, they learn through the message that the site itself conveys. If we had jet skis zipping by on the banks of the river and high-rise hotels in the distance, our visitors’ learning would be impaired, and their connection to the site would be diminished.”

The same is true for visitors at most any historic site across the country, and that’s why historic sites need to put Whole Place Preservation front and center.


For the first time on the state level, one proposed development endangered several nationally recognized historic sites and some of the most important wildlife habitat in the South Carolina Lowcountry. While the most obvious partnerships were between the three major historic sites that lined the Ashley River Road, a regional conservation group, the Coastal Conservation League, proved to be one of the most important allies in the fight. The threat pushed the preservationists and conservationists beyond their traditional partnerships and onto new ground, proving to each group the necessity of the other.

Dana Beach, the director of the Coastal Conservation League (CCL), had spent years working in the Ashley River Region with landowners and developers, helping people make conservation-minded decisions about their property. Beach had poured resources into the area and wasn’t going to let one developer threaten the progress that had been made in the fragile region. Beyond the development itself, Beach and his group were worried about its larger impact on the region, also referred to as the “ACE Basin,” named after the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. Beach says, “Had Watson Hill come to pass, more than two decades of private and public conservation investment in the ACE Basin would have been jeopardized. It was essential that environmental and habitat conservation groups joined forces with historic preservation advocates to secure the Ashley River. This is clearly a model for large-scale landscape-level protection here and elsewhere.”


Whole Place Preservation, by its very definition, must involve partnerships, as preservationists look outward to find nontraditional allies. Far too often, historians think saving important landmarks or stopping development within a site’s viewshed should be reason enough for the public to heed a call to action. Fortunately in some cases it is, but in many situations the preservation argument alone isn’t sufficient to start a genuine grassroots movement. Looking beyond preservation in its purest form and tying it in to real-world concerns such as increased traffic, higher taxes, school overcrowding, and loss of quality of life can bring people into the fray who have never allied with preservationists before. In the case of Drayton Hall, this intersection of interests proved to be the foundation on which the campaign was built.

Drayton Hall and CCL knew that most residents would oppose Watson Hill if these allies could prove that the development would hurt residents where it counted most—their pocketbooks. So the partners hired University of South Carolina economists who produced an economic assessment showing that the development would mean higher taxes for everyone in the county. After the results of the study were published, taxpayers associations jumped on the bandwagon to help protect their constituents. Neighborhood associations that had little contact with their historic-site neighbors joined forces, and a true grassroots campaign was born.

Once the community was on board with the anti–Watson Hill agenda, Drayton Hall, CCL, the Historic Charleston Foundation, Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, Summerville Preservation Society, and others embarked upon a full-fledged grassroots campaign involving print and broadcast media, public hearings, and local rallies. Knowing that the pockets of the developers ran much deeper than those of the local nonprofits who were footing the bill for the campaign, the allies decided that their movement had to be more strategic than simply a negative campaign against this specific development. They needed to be taking steps to protect the Ashley River Historic District in its entirety and in perpetuity. That meant a comprehensive ordinance that would limit the density of development while also providing guidelines on buffers and different uses along the historic corridor.

After more than three years of contentious public meetings the ordinance was passed, to the consternation of the developers and others who saw the immense forests of the region as the perfect place for new high-density development. The ordinance limited density on the Watson Hill site to 825 units for the 3,300 acres of available uplands (the rest being wetlands), which was a far cry from the 5,000 homes originally proposed.


The lesson here was clear to the allies in the Ashley River Region: politics count. Despite having “right” on one’s side, if you don’t have the votes on the decision-making council, you lose. Winning political support required long-term political engagement, an education campaign to inform the public about alternatives to suburban sprawl and costs of unmanaged growth, and efforts by nonprofit preservation organizations to build and sustain a constituency for historic preservation.


Finally, in January of 2009, the partners in this fight got some shocking news. The developers of Watson Hill were bankrupt and the bank was moving ahead to foreclose on the property. That meant a public auction, and perhaps a new and even more determined developer. With this newest twist in the case, the allies took immediate action and contacted MeadWestvaco, the previous owner of Watson Hill. The company had since stopped selling its property in the Lowcountry and instead embarked upon a new venture to show shareholders increased revenues: It had decided that its bottom line would be better served by keeping its large property holdings and developing them. MeadWestvaco joined forces with local conservationists and worked to develop a master plan for its 70,000-acre property called “East Edisto”—land that happened to be adjacent to Watson Hill. After the Watson Hill developers went bankrupt, MeadWestvaco announced plans to buy back Watson Hill and fold it into East Edisto.


Looking back on the entire saga, McDaniel and the other partners in the fight realized that this case study could serve as a valuable model for nonprofits and historic sites across the country, to guide them in addressing similar issues in their own communities.

McDaniel says that one of the most important characteristics of the team at Drayton Hall was its ability to act quickly in response to the Watson Hill threat. “We felt strongly that [Drayton Hall’s] strategic plan should include preservation of the region, so that when issues like this arose, our response to them would be a clear part of our strategy for the site. Instead of asking, ‘Is the Watson Hill issue something we need to respond to?’ we made clear to our staff that this issue was going to become a top priority, and an ‘all hands on deck’ priority at that.”

Added to this was Drayton Hall’s status as a National Trust for Historic Preservation Site. National Trust staff helped the Drayton Hall team articulate the campaign vision, mission, and goals that were necessary to forge common bonds with stakeholders, guide the disparate groups, anticipate obstacles, and mobilize accordingly. Historic sites that may not have the distinct advantage of being part of a national organization can still benefit by working to develop strategic partnerships with local and regional groups that can provide needed expertise and resources to strengthen their planning and advocacy efforts.

Although Drayton Hall took a leadership role, the four-year campaign evolved and developed along the way, and Drayton Hall had to alter its role accordingly. “Although we jumped into the fray immediately,” says McDaniel, “we quickly realized the importance of adjusting our role as specific instances called for different competencies. This campaign necessitated a multi-leader, multi-pronged approach, and we were changing tack every week. That strategy allowed for a number of different voices to be heard and for a grassroots campaign to emerge. As in life, Watson Hill demanded that we be willing to lead, and also be willing to follow.”

Although this drawn-out campaign was a drain on the nonprofit’s budget, the team at Drayton Hall came to understand its profound and enduring importance: Its value became clear as Drayton Hall came to be recognized as a leader in the community. With one highly publicized campaign, Drayton Hall was able to change the common misconception that preservationists are focused solely on the past. The larger public saw Drayton Hall helping to negotiate decisions for the community based on the future of the region, and the site was able to connect to constituencies that had previously been regarded as outside of the purview of a house museum. Today, a greater number of stakeholders now view the historic site within the larger context of their community and the region, not separate and apart from it.

“Drayton Hall realized that conservation interests and preservation interests are not mutually exclusive; in fact, in many cases they’re inseparable,” McDaniel recounts. “The Watson Hill threat, now abated, actually has been a blessing in disguise for our site, and has helped us forge a new path forward while many sites around the country are struggling to remain relevant. We established a meaningful place for ourselves within the community and developed relationships with other organizations that are invaluable as we move into Drayton Hall’s next chapter.” 

This case study provides a striking model for how historic sites can pursue Whole Place Preservation. It shows the importance and the imperative for historic sites to look beyond their property boundaries and to engage their local communities. Win or lose, context-sensitive preservation can generate new thinking and discussion within the preservation community on how sites can maintain their relevance in the face of declining admissions, federal budget cuts, and a depressed economy. “Drayton Hall was seen as a bit of a renegade a few decades back with the battles we chose to fight,” McDaniel says. “But our examples have become more and more mainstream, and I see sites across the country engaging their communities and negotiating their future like never before. Context-sensitive preservation must become a fundamental part of the mainstream preservation movement as we negotiate the role of these sites in the 21st-century.”

Monticello Preserves Its Viewshed

Many other battles are being fought across America in an effort to achieve Whole Place Preservation. One notable example of partners allied for view-shed protection occurred at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia (the only home in America on UNESCO’s World Heritage list). In 2008 the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, signed an agreement with the Piedmont Environmental Council to preserve as open space, in perpetuity, 150 acres on Montalto, the neighboring mountain that rises 410 feet above Monticello. There are no more important views to preserve from Monticello than those up to Montalto, Jefferson’s “high mountain.”

When the mountaintop first came on the market at $20 million in 2003, there weren’t many interested parties and the threat seemed minimal. When the price dropped to $15 million a year later and there were reports of strong interest in the development community, the Foundation decided that it had to act, and bought the mountain for the full purchase price, thus incurring debt and necessitating the immediate launch of a capital campaign. The president and CEO of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Leslie Greene Bowman, recalls the campaign to save the viewshed of the site as the “high-water mark of the Foundation’s ongoing efforts to safeguard the historic and scenic nature of the views from Monticello.” In this instance, Bowman explains, protecting land once owned by Jefferson was clearly in line with Monticello’s mission. “Land stewardship is a typically Jeffersonian concept. In our case, acquiring Montalto was a very natural extension for us of the work we were already doing at Monticello. This campaign underscored our ongoing commitment to the preservation of context of this highly significant site.”

Now Jefferson’s “high mountain” is used by the Foundation for events and interpretation and will forever be preserved. Guests of the site at last year’s Heritage Harvest Festival, held atop the mountain, marveled at the sublime view down the mountain to the home and truly understood the role the mountain played in preserving the authenticity of the site.


Petroglyph National Monument Connects With Community

While not every battle ends in a victory, even losses can provide lessons. An example of this is recounted by Diane Souder, chief of interpretation and outreach for Petroglyph National Monument. A National Park owned cooperatively by the City of Albuquerque, the State of New Mexico, and the National Park Service, the site battled constantly against unmanaged growth as residential areas illegally encroached on its lands. In 1996 a special appropriations bill went through Congress, removing 8.5 acres of land from the park’s boundary to allow for a four- to six-lane freeway.

“The issue was incredibly divisive,” says Souder. “Homebuilders wanted to open up more lands for development, some local residents wanted shorter commutes to the other side of the river, and others wanted to protect the traditional cultural landscape and monument resources. Because the issue was precedent-setting for all National Park sites, the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Tribal Councils, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and others worked to stop the road, but lost the battle after seven years.

“In the face of defeat, the Park Service set out to heal the community’s wounds. Before the road issue, our employees were advised not to wear their uniforms out in public. Now they go to schools, business openings, and Indian festivals, and are an integral part of the community. During the summers, they knock on every door in the surrounding neighborhoods as part of our new urban outreach. We also use the incident in our interpretation and educational programs, teaching the concept of stewardship so that when children grow up they will help protect the natural and cultural resources of the Petroglyph and other National Parks and monuments.”


Publication Date: Fall 2010

#DraytonHall #Landscapes #HistoricSites #ForumJournal

Author(s):Emily C. Pack