If you want to know what Charleston might have been like without a preservation movement, go to Columbia. Add some palm trees and a harbor. Put a giant cruise ship one block from Gervais Street and blow soot all over the Governor's Mansion. Put up some historic markers and remember what used to be.
Block by block, building by building, brick by brick, preservationists have been saving Charleston's heritage one-day-at-a-time for decades. And because of that effort, Charleston has emerged as a world-class vacation destination, basking in highly prized, hard-won international accolades and known around the globe for its architectural heritage, ambience, culture, and food — maybe not so much the uninspired Meeting Street office buildings erected in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, some people will always think of preservation as hindering progress. Every time you step through a historic storefront on King Street, attend a performance at the Dock Street Theatre, eat dinner on East Bay Street, drink too many bourbons on Upper King Street, take a visitor from out of town for a drive around the Battery, walk around Colonial Lake, explore the secrets of a house museum, jog past Rainbow Row on a charity run, celebrate a festival at Marion Square, or admire the beauty of an architectural detail — remember that historic preservation has made all of these experiences possible. There are no Reindeer Runs on Sam Rittenberg for a reason.
Preservation is equal parts advocacy, economic investment, and sweat. All of it is voluntary. Charleston would be much, much different without that effort — plenty of high-rise buildings, acres of surface parking, gallons after gushing gallons of gas stations, lighted downtown billboards brightening our evenings, above-ground power lines lined with birds, and far fewer historic buildings with old windows keeping us all cold and damp. (Now the only place those birds will have to roost will be in the holes in the walls of the proposed Clemson Architecture Center).
A Charleston without historic preservation would be a city with a tourist industry as robust as the one found in Orangeburg. A restaurant scene as lively as that in Moncks Corner. A hospitality industry that, well, might have really been desperate for Carnival Cruise Lines to come to town to take people away, quickly, to nicer places. And six more cars parked on Union Pier where the Bennett Rice Mill façade would have formerly stood.
The Board of Architectural Review would not have been created as part of that communist plot to steal property rights, denying citizens their right to enclose piazzas, add picture-windows to 18th-century façades, cover everything in everlasting, maintenance-free vinyl, and build enormous, bland buildings to pack hundreds of students and tourists into a city block. Well, maybe not that last one.
People ask why there isn't an architectural salvage store in Charleston. It's because we haven't demolished all of our buildings piece by piece. But if there hadn't been a preservation movement as robust as the one we have, there would be warehouses full of ironwork and architectural remnants for sale. And more than one mantel up for grabs at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
There wouldn't be any iron balconies on East Bay Street. On our smoke breaks we'd step out of our Broad Street high-rise offices to lean on highway-scaled street lights and puff our cigarettes, instead of stepping out of an old single house to lean on a quaint black lamppost. There'd be fewer trees planted by residents on Wentworth Street, since it would have been rezoned for commercial use.
The next time you can't find a parking space on your shopping trip to King Street or to dine out on East Bay Street, just dream of all of the parking that would have existed if it weren't for preservationists. Parking, parking, everywhere!
Demolishing the Lining House in 1960 would have made a convenient parking lot at the corner of Broad and King. After 1957, there would have been no regulation on parking lot creation in 90 percent of the city — and that's when the city was confined to the peninsula. All the better for cars, of course. And those parking lots would have been so much easier to find had preservationists not insisted in the 1950s that they be landscaped and hidden behind brick walls.
Preservationists have made it so hard to get around in cars, too. It would be so much easier if you could drive downtown directly over the Ashley River from James Island onto Broad Street, or even Beaufain Street, as had been proposed, and Chalmers Street wouldn't have cobblestones, making it so much easier to drive on. Easy driving, easy parking — the stuff of dreams, for sure. How many easy-driving, easy-parking cities reach the top of the list in Condé Nast?
Of course, there wouldn't be much for tourists to see. Preservationists wouldn't have been around to agitate for and support the restoration of the city's house museums, or the Market, or the Dock Street Theatre, or City Hall, or the Fireproof Building, or the old Statehouse, or the Exchange Building, or the Powder Magazine. There would be no Carolopolis Awards to reward and encourage sound restorations.
Aficionados of Porgy would visit Charleston but find that Cabbage Row would have been demolished. Susan Pringle Frost would have kept to herself at 27 King St., and not gathered up a group of like-minded citizens to save Charleston's creakiest and leakiest. The artists of the Charleston Renaissance would have been painting and drawing memorials of what had been lost, rather than mementoes of what we still have.
So many old buildings, with their energy-inefficient windows, could have been demolished to make way for the new and the hoped-for. Buildings such as 21 George St. (1960), 109 Broad St. and 107 King St. (1962), 66 Society St. (1964), 60 Tradd St. (1965), 53 South Battery (1969), 21 State St. (1969), McCrady's Tavern (1972), 91 Ashley (1976), 252 Meeting St. (1976), Gov. Thomas Bennett House (1976) — a banner year in the bicentennial for demolition proposals! And the list goes on, and on, and on, neighborhood by neighborhood, buildings that owners sought to demolish to save money on taxes or because a termite chewed through a baluster on the back porch.
Oh, yes, that's right. McCrady's Tavern was going to be demolished in 1972. The tavern where George Washington was feted. Why didn't we let that one go? Isn't Mt. Vernon enough?
There would be no French Quarter Historic District or Lodge Alley Inn. The courageous visionaries of Save Historic Charleston would not have led the $1.25 million campaign to buy the old buildings along East Bay Street that now house the inn and several of the city's most popular high-end restaurants, and to establish the historic district around it. It could have been high-rise condominiums.
And while you wouldn't have much reason to visit East Bay Street in an unprotected Charleston (unless you wanted to check out the pawn shops), there would be no trouble walking up and down the street, without stumbling. Those flagstone pavings, designed solely to trip people, would have been removed and replaced with concrete.
The Sergeant Jasper wouldn't mar the skyline at Broad and Lockwood. It would stand proud at 140 Wentworth St., where it was originally intended to be built. As would an 11-story apartment building at 68 Meeting St., below Broad.
What would Ansonborough look like without the work of the Historic Charleston Foundation? The handful of buildings salvaged from the site of the Gaillard wouldn't be standing, and so many more along Society and Anson and Wentworth and Laurens and Hasell would have been lost. Perhaps, instead, more apartment buildings could have been built or more gas stations or more convenience stores?
Historic houses from President Street would not have been moved near Lockwood Boulevard. Historic houses from George and St. Philip streets would not have been moved to Pitt and Beaufain streets. The buildings saved by the Historic Charleston Foundation's revolving fund around the city would almost all be lost. The buildings saved by the College of Charleston would have been replaced with the sort of buildings found on college campuses elsewhere. The Buckhead billboards wouldn't invite students to attend college in paradise, but, rather, Columbia-by-the-Sea. Well, that would be paradise, perhaps, to some.
The list of impediments to so-called progress — to demolition, relentless new construction, new parking lots and gas stations and highways — is long. Preservationists have stood in the way every day for decades. God bless them.
If you work downtown in real estate, tourism, the building trades, the hospitality industry, the food and beverage industry, a King Street shop, or a Market Street stall, or if you are proud to tell people you live in Charleston — remember that historic preservation makes this possible.
Whether we live here, work here, or visit here, we are all, young and old, natives and newcomers, bound together as a city through its historic sense of place, its buildings, its culture and its heritage.
We must all be preservationists, or else it all falls apart.