Jay Williams, Jr.
When the carriages bring fresh loads of tourists down King Street south of Broad, a driver may announce that the Board of Architectural Review has preserved these historic districts since 1931.
A century of economic challenges, aided by visionary preservationists and the BAR saved Charleston’s old houses and buildings from demolition. That preservation movement sparked Charleston’s fame and become a magnet for growth.
Today that growth is a mixed blessing — overwhelming the BAR and the defenses that protect our history and the city itself.
More than history is at risk. The historic districts, together with the restaurants and events that grew around them, are the main attractions for Charleston’s six million annual tourists. Not one of those two-dozen carriages, noisy tour busses, pedi-cabs, bikers or walkers is headed to Citadel Mall.
Recent improvements aside, the BAR and city staff are stressed. Charleston’s economic revival swelled the number of applications, lengthening the meetings yet reducing the attention to each one. To counter, the city adopted urban planner Andres Duany’s suggestion to split the BAR in two, one board to approve large structures (BAR-L) and the other for small applications (BAR-S). The city is adopting another suggestion—a guideline graphic to clarify the architectural direction the city favors for future applications, a move that should reduce conflicts and time for everyone.
More improvements are needed — quickly. Yet even as they are discussed, certain city council members are resisting any changes, unaware of the damage that’s being inflicted. Some city ordinances are ambiguous, some are not enforced and there is frequent disagreement among BAR members as to what is acceptable. The BAR-L, with just five members, can find itself virtually paralyzed if only two members aren’t there.
“The incursions of commercial development have created changes of scale that are threatening the fundamental character of the French Quarter, East Side and Ansonborough to the point that these neighborhoods will not be recognizable anymore. These are serious challenges,” says Winslow Hastie, chief preservation officer of Historic Charleston Foundation.
While most agree that the character of these neighborhoods can be preserved, new applications come individually, project by project. With stressed and overworked boards and staff, it’s difficult to consistently address “insensitive additions and infill buildings” that contribute to the a degradation of a neighborhood’s identity, noted Christopher Cody, Historic Charleston Foundation’s manager of advocacy.
Cody said that “the BAR performs a tremendous service; it’s a thankless job and they don’t get credit for the job they do.” But, he added, “The city’s support staff is criminally understaffed. They need at least four more people and they need to expedite hiring.”
It’s not just neighborhoods that are threatened by out-of-scale commercial development. The city’s Old and Historic districts are also vulnerable. Every change, addition or removal can’t be undone and every change alters history. They don’t make 200-year-old houses anymore.
What ordinances protect Charleston
Ordinance 240(i) is one of the BAR’s key preservation safeguards. It provides specific “grounds for considering a design inappropriate and requiring disapproval and resubmission.” Among those are “an incongruity of details resulting in a restless and disturbing appearance,” or a “composition not in consonance with the dignity and character of the present structure.”
Clearly, that ordinance has been ignored too often.
Ginny Bush, President of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, labeled the approval of an all-glass façade on a Murray Boulevard carriage house “a hiccup” in the permitting process. While the building “was once hidden by vegetation, that shouldn’t have been a consideration” in permitting such a radical change, an error that became shockingly apparent when the vegetation was cleared.
The BAR supervises any changes “in the exterior architectural appearance of any structure which is visible from the public right of way.” Does that provision require that any change anywhere to a building that’s visible from the street must be reviewed, or that only the changes visible from the street should be considered?
In the end, the interpretation of these ordinance for each project depends on the BAR members present and voting on any given night.
Winslow Hastie says that interpretation depends on the interpreter: “Andres Duany felt Classical Architecture is a language, but most architects these days aren’t classically trained, so they’re not particularly well versed in reviewing these projects.” Chris Cody adds, “and there’s a great danger when a board member doesn’t show up as you can have a biased board” looking at a particular application.
Cody says that the BAR believes that new additions or structures “should be differentiated from the old — that we shouldn’t create a false history.”
“How do you differentiate new work from old structures without being inharmonious? Unfortunately, there’s a trend toward ‘glass boxes,’ but good design shouldn’t be jarring.” Hastie said. “My resolve on the differentiation piece has dwindled. Given the concentration of our historic buildings, we should be more comfortable mimicking traditional designs.”
Last month, the BAR allowed an applicant to apply stucco to the all brick, historic Poinsett Tavern at 28 Elliott St. The applicant’s architect successfully argued that the brick had been badly repointed in places, that there were other stucco houses on the street and that a small section of stucco already existed. Objecting on behalf of the neighborhood association, this writer told the BAR that the brick’s “mortar patches serve to enhance the age and presence” of this important building linked to famed Revolutionary-era diplomat Joel Poinsett and that the high quality old brick was laid in the rare Flemish bond style that was meant to be seen, not covered in stucco. The brick repairs over the centuries reflect history and isn’t that what the historic district is about?
The application was vexed and while a thoughtful discussion ensued, “in a perfect world,” says Cody, “the BAR would do a site visit” to see if the stucco was warranted.
Had the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association not alerted the BAR that it intended to object, this significant alteration of the 1815 Poinsett Tavern would have been approved by the city staff, without BAR consideration. “The staff is making decisions that maybe they shouldn’t. There should be a clear codified understanding of what projects can be approved and what can be altered only after a public hearing,” said Cody.
In recent cases, staff decisions have gone beyond minor repairs and the selection of paint colors. Decisions to alter a structure should be handled by the board.
“The context really matters, it’s absolutely critical. There’s a difference between the west side of Murray Boulevard vs. Lower Church Street. Every neighborhood has its historic benefits and character,” said Hastie.
When the carriages roll down King Street south of Broad in 2027 or 2047, what will those tourists see — an Old and Historic District, or a Not-so-Old and Historic District?
Most who live in historic homes realize that they do not own them; they are caretakers, entrusted with preserving history for future generations. But not all do. It will require a more robust BAR, armed with clearer ordinances, more manpower, a codification of responsibilities and the knowledge and time to render sensitive contextual interpretations, to ensure Charleston’s history for the future.
Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.