16 May Cleo and Ron Visit Charleston

Cleo and I have just spent three days in Charleston, S.C., an amazing city if you like old architecture. It’s as old here as anywhere in the U.S.A. What’s amazing about the architecture is that in the 1700s, well-to-do Charlestonians were living in as high a style as their counterparts in London. In other words, their buildings were neither crude nor modest. As one historian explained to me: “Charleston was New York before there was a New York to speak of.” Early on, there was surprising diversity in Charleston, due to its port traffic, its proxmitiy to the Carribean, and its religious tolerance. It became known as the “City of Steeples” and remains distinctive for its numerous grand (mostly protestant) churches.

Cleo and I came this way as part of my From Animal House to Our House book tour. But we’ve lingered in a number of places to do work for the Preservation America project, which involves my interviewing preservationists everywhere I can find them. We’ve spent nearly a week in both the “upcountry” and the “low [coastal] country.” Among those I interviewed were Diane Culbertson, who (with her neighbors) moved and saved a number of early South Carolina buildings (most from the 1700s), including an African American school house that was found overgrown in a forest. Joe Magill, another preservationist, directs the Slave Dwelling Project. To bring attention to the untold story of slaves, he spends the night in slave cabins, sometimes in the company of the slave owner’s descendants. In short, I’m meeting some cool people who are doing cool things

You can’t talk about Charleston without talking about real estate and tourism. They go hand-in-hand because Charleston has become one of America’s premier tourist destinations. According to Conde Nast, it is, in fact, the number one tourist destination. People come here to see the old real estate. But to accommodate their great numbers, developers have constructed much new real estate. And so the question has come to the city: How much tourism do you want? There are trolley tours, horse-drawn carriage tours, pedi-cab tours, walking tours — the city is awash in tourists. As a result, the most developed areas of downtown feel like a shopping mall — virtually all of the store are occupied by national franchises, like Crate and Barrel and the Gap, which are the only kind of business that can pay the rent. Some residents fear that, by the time developers are done, Charleston will seem like little more than a theme park.

A recent loss for Charleston preservationists was the 1958 Public Library building on upper King Street. The Preservation Society of Charleston fought for eight years to preserve it. They lost finally in a close S.C. Supreme Court decision. By many standards, the buliding isn’t pretty, but it is historically significant as the first desegregated public building in Charleston and it is a definitive example of mid-Century modern civic architecture. As one preservationist puts it: “If all we’re doing is saving the buildings we happen to think are pretty at the moment — and history be damned — then we’re not doing much.” The old library, which could have been repurposed for any number of uses, will be replaced by a new hotel. Charleston already has 18,000 hotel rooms. The new hotel, according to one preservationist, will be too tall for the city (remember, we need to see the steeples) and, most likely, won’t be built to last.

Charleston is the birthplace of American preservation, its Preservation Society having established itself in 1920 in order to save an 1802 building from being demolished to make way for a gas station. It’s remarkable to think that, in so many places, preservationists are still fighting to save significant old buildings from being demolished for parking lots, convenience stores, and strip malls. What it comes down to is this: if you don’t mind living in a place that looks just like any other place, i.e., a generic kind of shopping mall/strip mall sprawl that could be Anywhere, USA, then you are not a preservationist. But, if you like to be in, near, or around places that have distinctive character, if you care about the quality of your surroundings — a bungalow community built in the 1920s, a ranch house community built in 1950, or a colonial neighborhood built in 1750 — then you are a preservationist. It doesn’t mean you’re against progress; it doesn’t mean you want to turn houses into museums; simply it means you want to keep using the old, or older, places.

Charleston has become a second home to the ultra-rich. You know this by looking at the housing prices. They’re nearly as high as Manhattan’s. A mansion that might cost you a couple million anywhere else costs upwards of 15 million here. If Jill and I lived here, I’d want to be in the historic district but would be able to afford nothing larger than a garage. You can’t beat the city’s cultural assets — there’s great food, music, art, and so on. But, as an outsider who’s seen a lot of great places, I must conclude that Charleston has been overbought and overbuilt.