Major Alterations Approved for Significant Civil Rights Site
preservation-admin , February 15, 2022
Last week the Board of Architectural Review – Small (BAR-S) approved a proposal to significantly alter the former Green Book-listed Brooks Restaurant and Realty Company building at 56 Morris Street. This unfortunate outcome points to a troubling trend indicative of broader misconceptions about preservation amid the rapid redevelopment of Charleston’s historically African American neighborhoods.
“A reminder of Black businesses that blossomed”
Located at the corner of Morris and Felix Streets, the one-story building at 56 Morris Street tells the story of Charleston’s thriving, mid-century African American business districts, and life during the Civil Rights Movement. 56 Morris is one of the few remaining structures attributed to prominent African American entrepreneurs, Albert and Benjamin Brooks, who operated numerous businesses across the city at this time, with a concentrated presence in the Morris Street Business District. Listed in the 1960 edition of the Green Book, the Brooks Restaurant at 56 Morris served the community and the neighboring Brooks Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed when he visited Charleston in 1963. The Brooks Motel was demolished in the early 2000s for new residential development.
Like many of the peninsula’s historically African American neighborhoods, Cannonborough-Elliotborough, and Morris Street in particular, has suffered tremendous loss of historic buildings over time. A streetscape once populated with a diverse mix of uses and building types is now a predominantly residential area dominated by new construction.
While the Preservation Society supports rehabilitating this building for adaptive use, we spoke in opposition to the introduction of a second story addition that would drastically alter its form and character, and detract from its ability to convey its original use and significance. Benjamin Brooks’ daughter, Jean Brooks Murphy, also opposed the request saying, “[56 Morris] should remain as a monument and reminder of Black businesses that blossomed in downtown Charleston from the 50s-90s.”
Preservation vs. Progress
In spite of community opposition, the BAR-S, unfortunately, granted the project conceptual approval, and Board discussion was indicative of broader misconceptions about preservation as a roadblock to progress. As preservationists, we are not opposed to any and all change. We recognize that buildings must evolve to survive. But change can—and must—occur sensitively. Successful, adaptive use of historic buildings can be facilitated while allowing the structure’s characteristic footprint, scale, and design to remain intact. These factors contribute to a building’s integrity, and thus its storytelling capacity.
As an important, representative example of Morris Street’s role as a commercial and cultural center for Charleston’s African American community in the 20th century, 56 Morris Street has a story to tell and deserves a much more sympathetic approach to rehabilitation. The PSC is actively supporting storytelling efforts through the Morris Street Business District Project, a digital exhibit that illuminates the racial and social history of Morris Street, building by building. You can learn more about 56 Morris Street and other nearby buildings, both existing and lost, by exploring the interactive map.
Next Steps for 56 Morris and A Call to Preserve Notable Philip Simmons Ironwork
As the PSC continues to weigh in on the details of the 56 Morris Street project at subsequent levels of BAR review, our top priority is advocating for the preservation of as much historic material and character-defining detail as possible. At present time, we are particularly concerned about the inexplicable disappearance of several pieces of original Philip Simmons ironwork from the windows of 56 Morris Street. We are not sure how or why these significant, historic pieces were removed, but we feel it is imperative that they be reinstalled as part of this project. We will be calling on the project team and the BAR to facilitate the restoration of the Philip Simmons window grates and invite you to join us. Stay tuned for updates on when we can expect this project to return to BAR and how to make your voice heard.
Review the 56 Morris Street proposal here.