Behre: For its next preservation challenge, Charleston needs help
preservation-admin , February 20, 2021
The challenges facing Charleston’s preservationists in the next 100 years are looking less and less like the issues they worked on during their first century.
When the movement began to coalesce in the early 1900s, its leaders fought to prevent old buildings from being torn down. They also advocated for sensitive renovations and later for suitable, contextual new buildings next door.
Make no mistake: That’s still important work. And it’s work that never will be completely finished since buildings, like all of us, age and change.
But Charleston has many protections and processes that oversee that work now, and the preservation movement is expanding beyond bricks and mortar to the existential threat of rising seas and issues involving our quality of life — from short-term rentals to tourism pressures to housing affordability. Unlike saving buildings, these are challenges that Charleston won’t be able to solve all on its own.
The good news is two local preservation leaders are now plugged into the national scene. Preservation Society of Charleston President Kristopher King is serving on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which works with federal agencies on issues that affect historic buildings and sites. And the society’s board chair, Betsy Cahill, is a new board member with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the nation’s leading preservation nonprofit.
“Preservation in Charleston has always been seen as the tip of the spear for preservation nationally, but I think that’s true even now more than ever,” King says. “The issues we’re facing in Charleston are the issues we’re seeing all across the country. The sea wall is a great example.”
Cahill’s role with the National Trust will be using her experience in Charleston to advise the trust’s staff on how it can most effectively help local preservation work. After all, preservation is primarily a local issue: It’s up to each community to figure out what it values about its past and how it should protect it.
“The National Trust has a number of historic sites through which the story of America is told,” she says. “As we’ve experienced in Charleston, that story has many more voices in it than traditionally have been on the page. It’s a question of how do you fold new voices — and many more voices — into the telling of the story.”
For instance, Cahill notes that the trust has a $25 million African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which already has made grants to Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the Hutchinson House on Edisto Island.
Cahill, who is not trained as a preservationist (or as an architect), says she got involved in the movement because it makes a compelling economic case: Preserving old buildings might cost a little more in the short run, but it pays off nicely over time.
She notes that most people clearly understand that in Charleston, “but that isn’t the case in every community. I want to help figure out how communities can make the case for preservation. … The argument preservation would make is by hanging on to what gives a community its identity, you’re laying the path for a more sustainable economic development. The look and the feel and the history and the continuity of our places matter.”
For King’s part, he notes that the Advisory Council’s work can get pretty technical pretty fast. For instance, it recently advised the Federal Communications Commission on thousands of cellphone towers built about a decade ago without consideration of their impact on nearby historic sites; the FCC is figuring out whether to allow additions to them also without historical review. The council urged it not to. “It’s getting in the weeds to understand how a decision might impact not just one community but thousands,” he says.
It’s nice to know that despite the dramatically evolving challenges with historic preservation, Charleston maintains its role as a national leader — a fact that should help this city but also many others, too.
“Yes, it’s about the built environment, but it’s pivoted more to be about community,” King says. “There are things local groups can do that national groups can’t do and things national groups can do that local ones can’t.”