Recently, the City of Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review surprised many in the community when it decided to approve the planned Clemson Architecture Center, a modernist building that is far removed from the Holy City’s preservation-minded proclivities. However, if Charleston hopes to do more for itself and its future than just hold on to its history, there is no doubt the BAR took a step in the right direction.
Over the years, the Board of Architectural Review has denied far less ambitious concepts, and these denials generally seem to rely on the BAR’s desire to protect Charleston’s unique heritage, culture, and architecture from the taint of modernity. To be frank, this has been a great mistake on the part of the City and its planners. As one of the oldest cities in the United States, Charleston is home to a very active and vigilant preservationist movement, one that claims to stretch all the way back to the Holy City’s earliest days, although what they were preserving at the start of the city’s life is questionable. Today, the BAR controls virtually every aspect of Charleston’s look and feel by enforcing a rigid set of controls on the structures within its historical districts. The results of this system are mixed at best.
There are buildings downtown that are unused and on the verge of collapse that remain standing because the Board of Architectural Review will not allow the owners to demolish them. At the same time, the board cannot force the owners to make repairs. And then there is the 2011 case in which the BAR denied a grieving father permission to demolish a house he owned that was damaged by a fire. The fire in question claimed the life of his daughter, and the house only served to remind him of her tragic death. Clearly, the Board of Architectural Review needs to relax its rules when it comes to residential units.
Even when a homeowner is granted the right to effect repairs — either restorations or renovations — they must conform to a very specific set of guidelines and are subject to BAR’s approval. In addition, all of the plans must be drafted by an architect, presumably even for such mundane changes as hanging new shutters on a house. (There are actually guidelines in the BAR’s byzantine handbook for exactly this type of work.) This, and other aspects of Charleston’s preservationist mind-set, seems counter-intuitive to progress and adapting to changing economic and social pressures.
However well-intentioned this system is, it may be time to reconsider certain aspects that are falling behind the times and possibly hurting Charleston’s future. Hopefully, the approval of the Clemson Architecture Center is a sign of things to come.
While many in the Holy City cry out that the introduction of modern buildings in downtown’s historic districts is an affront to the city’s rich history, they would do well to remember that all of the buildings downtown were “modern” at some point in time. Freezing a city in time is certainly the way to build a certain “charm” as far as generating interest amongst tourists, but it is not a clear path to progressive growth. While preservation is an integral part of any city with a past as deep and as rich as Charleston’s, it cannot be overstated that the past we are preserving is ultimately the story of people who were creating a world for themselves in their present. By not allowing the Holy City’s urban infrastructure to grow beyond a time that is over a century old, the BAR has adopted a philosophy that runs counter to how human societies have organized themselves throughout history.
Modern families and businesses need buildings that reflect the times they exist in, and not just in their interior conveniences and adherence to building and fire codes. While it may be romantic for many people to dress up at Civil War re-enactments from time to time, very few people are willing to make that a daily way of life. Yet the Board of Architectural Review seems to want to keep that sort of atavistic nature alive and well in Charleston. Any city that derives a significant portion of its economic well-being from its own history must accept that preservation, while certainly important from a historic standpoint, should not always trump progress and that progress is not always directly tied to short-term solutions such as increasing tourism or cultivating a “creative class” of citizens.
As a city that is proud of its past but looks to the future, Charleston must be careful that it doesn’t become a city that is stuck in the past and has no future before it.