The historic district of Charleston acts as a beacon for tourists from around the world, drawing them in to spend weekends with cameras flashing and fingers pointing. They adore the architecture and soak in the air with little thought for the background maintenance poured into keeping the city pristine. A simple walk down the street transports you back in time, oozing southern charm and pride in neat columns and narrow roads. The amber glow of the atmosphere preserves the remnants of another generation, a living and breathing fossil untouched by time. Even after the flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew, the buildings shine, the rushing water a distant memory.
The birthplace of preservation
After the Civil War and Reconstruction of the nineteenth century, Charleston existed simply as a sleepy town, caught in a rut of the South. New life invigorated the city during the 1920s, during what was called the Charleston Renaissance. Art movements ignited throughout the community, bringing in a new era of expression through visual media and writing. With this boom came tourists, arriving in search of the heart of the artistic movement, desperate to explore after World War I. Interest peaked, and Charleston began pulling in industries and people as it established a thriving tourism economy. Change happened fast, however, and several beautiful historic buildings were demolished in its wake. The public concern over lost architecture led to the establishment of the Preservation Society of Charleston and the 1931 zoning ordinance that founded the nation’s first Board of Architectural Review to protect historic buildings.
“We are very lucky here because historic preservation has become part of the culture of the community. We are very proud of our buildings, landscapes and historic district,” said Winslow Hastie, chief preservation officer at the Historic Charleston Foundation. This ingrained pride has become a hallmark of Charleston society, sustaining a decades- long tradition of preservation and a viable tourism economy.
“Culturally, it is important to have those tangible links to the past,” remarked Tim Condo, manager of preservation initiatives for the Preservation Society of Charleston. “Environmentally, the buildings are already standing. By preserving what you already have, you are giving them new life and helping them live as long as possible. Also, economically, reinvestment in these buildings through tax credits is a great way to revitalize.”
Even beyond the peninsula, historic preservation remains pervasive to Lowcountry culture. Several local groups based in Charleston extend their services to Summerville, Beaufort and Edisto Island. The Preservation Society of Charleston’s “Seven to Save” project coordinates the restoration of seven sites in danger throughout the Lowcountry. Volunteers analyze and document the state of places and develop a site management plan.
Preservation and Growth
The meticulous care for historic buildings includes preventing the demolition of neglected and dilapidated buildings, but this can leave the city stagnant with little room to grow and develop. The past few years brought large growth to Charleston, whether through industry, residents or tourists — so how does the city balance historic preservation with expansion and new growth?
“Preservation needs to allow the city to continue to be a living city,” said Condo. “Preservation and construction do not need to be mutually exclusive. You can build new buildings but in a way that respects the context.” Preservationists provide a guideline for incoming construction by protecting the places that need preservation. Historic preservation groups thrive on compromise, bringing the historical context of location and architectural styles into every construction discussion. They act as the gatekeepers to the city, walking the fine line between stagnant and overly ambitious.
The recent growth spike is not the only threat historic preservationists in Charleston face. The city floods on a frequent basis, specifically the land on top of covered marshes. With the world-wide increase in hurricane frequency, attributed to the increase of sea surface temperatures, flooding presents a real and immediate threat. According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rapidly rising sea levels will breach the peninsula within a few decades, surrounding the US Customs House.
Flooding can cause significant damage to historical housing, warping hardwood and concrete and soaking into carpets and furniture. Most insurance policies for historic properties include requirements to prevent excessive destruction. The inclusion of window shutters or an elevated first floor encourage owners to protect their property before flooding can occur. The Federal Emergency Management Agency mandates regulations for construction in flood zones, dictating that new buildings must be above the base flood elevation.
Despite these precautions, flood damage still can and will occur. To counteract this, preservation groups coordinate with the public to dispense information on when flooding may occur and how to deal with destruction. The Preservation Society of Charleston distributes information in newsletters to members and maintains a blog of recent news and developments. The Historic Foundation of Charleston keeps local owners in contact with contractors to repair and damage. They coordinate with the community before, during and after a disaster — a constant presence of education and advocacy.
Charleston began as the birthplace of historical preservation, and remains a vibrant and growing city through these continued efforts. In the words of Winslow Hastie, the preservation of tangible historical links “makes us the envy of the world.”
“It is baked into the fiber of this community,” Hastie said. “It makes this place unique.”
A community’s worth of work lies behind every historical wall and window. An army of advocates, volunteers and contractors spend their days keeping the Lowcountry unique and alluring, unbeknownst to the tourists passing through.
*This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Yard.