The Preservation Society of Charleston was instrumental in persuading Charleston City Council to adopt the Planning and Zoning Ordinance of 1931, which was one of the most significant events in the local and national preservation movements. It all began in the 1920s when the South Carolina General Assembly passed enabling legislation to permit cities to establish planning and zoning commissions.
Charleston preservationists urged the creation of an ordinance that would protect the city’s historic buildings and neighborhoods. They found a crucial ally in Mayor Thomas P. Stoney, who shared concern that, if left unchecked, 20th century development would destroy the old city. The Mayor and early Preservation Society members successfully convinced City Council to focus on the potential impacts of inappropriate development in the historic district. Council in turn appointed a committee to draft Charleston’s first zoning ordinance, of which Alston Deas, president of the Preservation Society (then known as the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings), served as chairman.
The committee studied zoning ordinances of other cities and found no precedent for what they believed Charleston needed. They concluded that “a comprehensive and intensive survey of local conditions must be made before a satisfactory zoning ordinance could be drafted.” In summer of 1930, City Council approved the recommendation and hired a Pittsburgh firm, Morris Knowles, Inc., to survey Charleston’s pre-revolutionary houses and draft the proposed ordinance.
On October 19, 1931, the Zoning Ordinance was signed and set forth a new mechanism for historic preservation, establishing the Board of Architectural Review, a board empowered to approve or deny architectural alterations on buildings in the Old and Historic District. It was the first law of its kind in the United States that would serve as example for other communities, and the district it initially established has been expanded to protect more than 4,800 historic structures in Charleston.