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Clemson School of Architecture

Public opinion prevails
What changed the City's and Clemson's minds?
Warwick Jones

Clemson's decision to abandon the plan to build its School of Architecture in Ansonborough has been well publicized. We planned to remain silent on the issue but after reading the editorial in Sunday's edition of the Post and Courier, we can't. Readers of the newspaper may think that the decision was made simply by Clemson and City who wanted only to do the right thing by the community. We know it was more complex than that.

For the record, Clemson has bought a property at the corner of George and Meeting Streets to house its new school. It is only 100 yards of so from the originally proposed site. But the new site is in the City-designated Commercial Corridor and out of the heart of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood District. No doubt many residents would have liked it further away but none would disapprove of the move. Although some hurdles still remain, they are not insuperable and there is high probability that the Corner of George and Meeting Streets will be the school's new home. The remaining issues, particularly for Ansonborough residents, are what will happen to the George Street site where the school was originally proposed and what will be the nature of the new school building - traditional or modern?

Save the City deserves credit.....
Before we address the two issues, let's add something to the record. Much of the credit for the decision to abandon the original site was the groundswell of opinion against the location and the design. This opposition was not only from Charleston folk but from elsewhere in the US. And the criticism included that from notable architects. Credit needs to be given to Save the City, an organization whose title says what it is about. It did much to publicize Clemson's intent within the architectural and preservation community in the US. Its web site featured the drawings of the new school and provided the community an opportunity to see what was planned.

....as does HANA and its plan for legal proceedings
There was also the consistent opposition to the plans by The Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association (HANA) and the Preservation Society. Members of HANA had grown tired of the assaults by the City and developers on the community and Clemson's plans united members more than any other issue. A single meeting was sufficient to raise the necessary funds to begin legal proceedings. Hagood and Kerr was retained to begin preparation. There was no doubting the seriousness of HANA's intent, and this was never hidden.

The decision by Clemson to shelve its original plans now makes legal action moot, though it would be premature to say this with certainty. Issues remain with the original property and its zoning but hopefully these too will become moot.

Only certain thing was groundswell of opinion
So what caused the City and Clemson to change their minds? The only thing one can be certain about was the groundswell of opinion. The groundswell was noticed in Columbia and some heads were shaking about the cavalier attitude of a State sponsored college to the community. The purse strings of the College begin in Columbia and it seems that the College was reminded of this. Were there threats made? We don't know but it does seem that Representative Limehouse and Senator Campsen voiced opposition to Clemson's original plans. This by itself may have been sufficient to change Clemson's mind.

Mayor was probably mindful of election next year
But there was also the other political consideration. Mayor Riley, who had declared just before the fateful Board of Architectural Review meeting last year that residents of Ansonborough "would learn to love the building", was undoubtedly surprised at the depth and persistence of the opposition to Clemson's plans. With his plan to run again for Mayor in next year's election, an issue such as Clemson could be threatening. And with HANA's intent on legal action, the issue was not going to go away. We suspect he was happy for Clemson to buy the new site and defuse the issue.

What will happen to original sites?
Ansonborough residents hope that the two blocks of land sold to Clemson for the original school are rezoned to Residential and sold as such. Presently they are Limited Business. If they are sold with this zoning, we expect the neighborhood will continue its fight. We do note some confusion as to the actual ownership of the properties. County records show that Clemson is the owner. But the City has stated that the properties revert back to it if the School is not built there. We have looked at the deeds of the sale and find no clause that says this.

Modern or traditional?
We expect there will be some differences as to whether the architecture of the new school should be modern or traditional. We'd opt for the latter but concede there is room for differences in opinion. We just hope that the new school will respect the surrounding structures and community. After the stinging criticism at the first meeting when the first building was discussed, we expect the BAR to try real hard to ensure respect.

Your Comments:

I have not seen renderings of the proposed school design but it's good to hear that the public is actively involved.

I come to Charleston frequently to get a healthy dose of history, something severly lacking in my city. Merging old and new architecture can be tricky, and time usually tells if something works. My suggestion, as an outsider, would be to get the urban design details right the first time. So many iconic buildings of today forget about the street and the users.

On the arhcitectural side, there are two arguments. Mimic or separate. I believe you can design great modern buildings in old neighborhoods. You can always play it safe and design a 'traditional'looking structure but on a large scale it usually ends up looking like a pretender. If you can't design an old building properly then don't do it at all. To get that level of craftsmanship is costly and time consuming, a formula that doesn't hold well in today's quick fix mentality.

Example. A college built a new facility on a prominent corner in Charlotte. The intent of the leaders was to mimic neo-classical architecture, complete with a gaudy fountain. The belief is that it makes the college 'appear' like a traditional, old institution even though the college took over the former high school campus in the 1960's. In that situation I would have preferred to see a great modern design that symobolized progressive thinking and modern technology.

I don't have an answer for the modern-traditional argument but it's much more important to design a building that works for the end users.

Posted by: John Howard at August 28, 2006 02:32 AM

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