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Concern for the future of Charleston’s historic district

A warning by a preservationist

Warwick Jones

Charleston got another warning about degradation of the historic district. This time it was from Jonathan Poston, Director of the Graduate Center in Historic Preservation of Clemson University. In his address The renewed challenge to Charleston , Mr. Poston despaired as to what was happening and called for action by the community. He was addressing members of the Preservation Society at its 2007 Annual Lecture series on Thursday last. Before joining Clemson faculty, Mr. Poston was a director of the Historic Charleston Foundation. He is also an author and perhaps the most prominent preservationist authority on Charleston.

Mr. Poston joins many others who have been sounding an alarm over the degradation of the historic district, a chorus led by the Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF). These two bodies both published warnings last year of the threat to the historic districts by the large and inappropriate developments approved by the City. Both have joined to fight the City in court over one major proposed development. Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association nominated Charleston as one of the most endangered historic areas. The National Trust did not choose Charleston. It was preoccupied with those areas affected by Katrina but we did hear that some Trust members were very concerned.

Need for a strict ordinance…..
rIn any way they can, Citizens should pressure the City to adopt a meaningful preservation ordinance and to strictly adhere to it, Mr. Poston said. The ordinance should be as strict as some European models. Cynthia Jenkins, executive director of the Society, suggested in the question period that residents write to the Post and Courier. This sounded forlorn considering an earlier comment by Mr. Poston that the Post and Courier seemed to have little interest in preservation. He contrasted this with the situation some 20 or so years ago when the paper was in the forefront of the movement. He also noted the dearth of letters to the editor, a reflection, we wonder, of the paper’s disinterest, the diminished enthusiasm of the community, or the resignation of the community that nobody in the City administration cares.

….and a permanent and substantial revolving fund
Mr. Poston also suggested that a permanent and substantial “revolving fund” be created. This would enable historic buildings to be bought, presumably by a body similar to the Preservation Society, properly restored, and then resold with preservation easements. He did not comment on a possible source of financing. He also suggested that a proper inventory be made of the historic buildings of the City to assist in their preservation and restoration. He could have added that given the historic significance of the City, we owe an inventory to posterity.

Much of Mr. Poston’s presentation was devoted to the history of the preservation movement in Charleston and the important contribution made to it by citizens and others. Interestingly the name Mayor Riley was not mentioned. He also noted that despite the efforts of preservationists, some significant buildings had been lost over the years.

Everybody in the City administration gives lip service to the need for more greenspace. But it appears to be a case of “not in my back yard”. It seems the City wants a building constructed on every vacant lot, and usually there will be a necessity for variances, for a smaller setback, a greater height and a larger footprint.

Mr. Poston stated that he was not opposed to modern structures in the historic districts but that they had to be appropriate and not incongruous. They also need to be made of quality materials. Asked later to name a modern building which he thought met an acceptable standard, Mr. Poston hesitated and after commenting that there were few, hesitatingly suggested the Beatty Building of the College of Charleston.

Design of hotel on King Street draws groans
If there was a particular highlight to Mr. Poston’s address, it was a diagram of the proposed hotel on King Street and abutting Marion Square. It drew groans from the audience. The drawing showed an immense structure totally out of scale with the surrounds. It was too high, too broad and too big. The building could have been lifted from a picture book of Soviet Moscow. How could such a building be allowed was the common thought?View image

Need for a moratorium
Although a study of the preservation ordinance was under way, one member of audience suggested that it could take some years for any change to be made by the City. In the meantime, more harm could be done to the City. Could we not seek a moratorium on large scale new construction? Mr. Poston agreed that it was an excellent suggestion and from the murmur, the audience concurred.

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