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A Yankee Visits Charleston

When I attended the Association for Preservation Technology International (APT) conference last fall in Charleston, South Carolina, I was amazed by the city’s historic architecture. Charleston is renowned for gracious homes and its place at the vanguard of the historic preservation movement, but I was still taken aback by the sheer number of historic buildings, their beautiful condition, and the way that the built environment of Charleston contributes to an incredibly strong sense of place. I was also amazed by the sensational job the local preservation community is doing in the city—not only preserving, but marketing their historic architecture. As Board President of San Francisco Architectural Heritage, I can tell you I was taking a lot of notes. There are things our city by the bay could learn.

Charleston has long been associated with beautiful homes and gardens, as though the ethos of preservation is fundamental to the city’s culture. It’s true that preservation has had a foothold in Charleston longer than in many American Cities. (Charles Chase, my colleague at Architectural Resources Group, formerly served as the Charleston City Architect; as he points out in his detailed write-up of the city for Preservation Forum, Charleston’s 1783 motto was “She guards her customs, buildings and laws.”) However, historic preservation in Charleston is no more primordial than it is anywhere else. It has taken hard work from citizens and legislators over more than a century.

The city’s longtime mayor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr., gave the APT conference keynote presentation. Currently serving his tenth term, he has been instrumental in the revitalization of Charleston since he was first elected in mayor in 1975. At a time when many cities were suffering from the devastating results of “urban renewal,” he effectively made the case to the business community for preserving historic buildings, thereby boosting tourism and creating an economic engine. He worked with developers to fill vacant lots with good architecture in order to make the pedestrian realm inviting and link isolated neighborhoods.

Riley also spearheaded the creation of Waterfront Park, one of many parks that the city has added under his leadership. (Of course, buildings and open spaces aren’t enough by themselves. Riley also helped bring the Spoleto Festival to the United States. This counterpart to Italy’s Festival dei Due Mondi got its start in Charleston in 1977 and has grown into a 17-day affair, one of the largest performing arts festivals in the world.)

Also central to the continuing vitality of Charleston’s historic preservation movement are two groups: the Preservation Society of Charleston (PSC), and the Historic Charleston Foundation. The APT conference coincided with the PSC’s annual fall tour of homes and gardens, which I attended. Many of these homes have gated enclosures, behind which lie incredible gardens not visible from the street. As far as I can tell, longtime residents feel its their patriotic duty to participate. Citizen volunteers were out en masse for the tour; the event draws scores of community members who serve as home guides, garden guides, even “street marshals” to deal with the large crowds.

The homes themselves date from the Colonial through the Antebellum eras. Some homeowners are engaged in restoring their homes or portions thereof back to the original condition, trying to make them as authentic as possible. I loved the opportunity to peek into these homes and gardens. (I also, incidentally, learned why my sago palm doesn’t thrive in the Bay Area. Turns out it needs a hot, humid, shady environment. These wonderful palms were everywhere.)

In addition to its own series of tours, the Historic Charleston Foundation maintains two historic house museums that convey some sense of the complex social and economic relationships of the Antebellum South to their visitors. The Nathaniel Russell House, a Federal House dating to 1808, is a premier example of a Charleston townhouse, and the subject of a recent rehabilitation project to update facilities and improve interpretive value. The interpretive aspect of the museum focuses on sharing the stories of both the moneyed owners and the slaves who ran the property. Interpretive efforts at The Aiken-Rhett House, which once entertained Jefferson Davis, focus on the “interconnectedness of enslaved African Americans and the Aiken-Rhett families.”

These kinds of houses serve as the public face of the preservation movement and help attract new advocates. My business partner Glenn David Mathews–a Bay Area transplant from an old Charleston family–cites his childhood visits to his ancestral home, the Heyward-Washington House, as the catalyst for his early interest in historic preservation. (I saw this house, which is now open to the public, on my visit—I never knew he had such a pedigree!)

San Francisco has some of the same advantages as Charleston—in addition to beautiful examples of historic architecture that draw visitors from around the globe, we have a strong urban fabric and fantastic views of the water. Both cities developed before the advent of the automobile, so they’re both very walkable. But San Francisco hasn’t recognized some of its historic residential areas to the extent that Charleston has, and we don’t always showcase our architecture as well as we could.

One thing I would love to copy from Charleston is the historic marker program, which the PSC developed to involve homeowners in preservation efforts. Owners of historic houses can research and apply for marker status and buy, at cost, a plaque displaying their home’s date of construction and brief history. So far 140 homes bear one of these plaques. It’s a subtle recognition that these buildings are significant, and I think it helps build a sense of pride among homeowners, something that can only broaden the reach of the preservation movement. There’s no reason we couldn’t transplant this idea to the Bay Area.

Sago palms, however, are another matter.