Media Coverage

Editorial: Expand Charleston’s National Register Historic District

preservation-admin , February 5, 2022

Read the original Post and Courier article here. 

These single houses along Bogard Street are one of the dozens of examples of historic homes that contribute to Charleston’s ambiance but sit outside its National Register Historic District. Robert Behre. 

Charleston’s National Register Historic District already is one of the nation’s largest but should be even larger, mainly because its boundaries reflect political considerations rather than historical ones.

And today’s political realities are different than in the 1980s, when the city held its most recent debate over expanding the district. That effort to extend it north to the Septima Clark Parkway failed because most affected residents didn’t want it. So the present district makes little sense. (It reaches as far north as Mary Street on the peninsula’s east side and Radcliffe Street on the west side, but it winds quite a jagged line along the way, like a fortification line on an old map.)

In other words, the district doesn’t reflect the historical significance of Charleston’s built environment but rather a compromise effort struck a generation ago between those who wanted the city’s National Register district to recognize its history and those with concerns that such recognition would speed up the process of forcing less affluent, mostly African American residents out.

Charleston residents and property owners likely would be more welcoming today to including more of the peninsula in the National Register. There’s more appreciation than ever of the city’s African American history, which any expansion would help research and highlight, and a greater interest in protecting it.

And there are more benefits to being on the National Register today than in the 1980s. Being in a National Register district makes it easier for homeowners to qualify for tax credits available for work on historic homes. It also gives homeowners more flexibility in elevating their homes (or not).

We also hope there’s more understanding about what being listed on the National Register of Historic Places does — and does not — mean. It is mostly an honor that makes it easier for property owners to get tax breaks and special consideration. It has nothing to do with the Board of Architectural Review and its powers to approve or deny demolition, changes and new building. Those are set by city ordinance, and the BAR already has authority, in varying degrees, over all the peninsula.

Since the 1980s, Charleston actually saw a new National Register district created south of Hampton Park. The homes in Hampton Park Terrace are historic, but no more than many in other peninsula neighborhoods to the south not on the register. Erin Minnigan of the Preservation Society of Charleston hopes this can be remedied.

“The Charleston Historic District was designated early on the National Register in 1966 with multiple boundary increases over the subsequent decades, yet is still limited to the southern portion of the peninsula, predominately below Calhoun Street, leaving many of our historic neighborhoods outside of the boundaries and unrecognized,” she says. “We have taken steps locally to recognize the importance of these neighborhoods, and brought them under BAR purview in varying degrees, but have not pursued their designation on the National Register.

“Taking this step would convey they are as equally worthy of preservation as our neighborhoods on the south peninsula, and provide access to the tax incentives that would make the preservation projects expected from these neighborhoods more possible.”

Rising rents and home prices place significant pressure on longtime downtown residents — and residents across our entire region, for that matter. That may even be a greater concern today than it was in the 1980s, but we don’t see the National Register listing as making much difference, for better or worse.

A more likely reason that there has been no effort to expand the district recently is the amount of work it would involve: Surveying and researching the history and integrity of hundreds of old buildings would be a complicated, costly job. But there could be a new opportunity there. Should Charleston pursue a peninsula sea wall project with the Army Corps of Engineers, the necessary survey work could be paid for as mitigation for the impact on the city’s existing National Register districts.

Charleston is expected to begin work soon on a new plan for downtown — one that will address our aspirations for the peninsula. Now is a logical time to consider whether increased federal recognition of its history should be part of its future.

We certainly think it should.

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