In a city that so values its architecture, it would seem unthinkable that a set of Charleston homes that won the highest award possible from the American Institute of Architects would be torn down less than 25 years later.

But that's exactly what has happened.

The case of the Charleston cottages that once stood near Huger and Meeting streets is a sad one, but it also carries a lesson.

It's a reminder that while most people notice and discuss only the architectural details such as a building's interior and exterior ornament and finishes, it's ultimately the bones of a structure that truly must stand the test of time.

Their design was as simple as it was elegant: a tiny version of a Charleston cottage, a vernacular form often called a Freedman's cottage, with an entry onto a small piazza that in turn led into a home with slightly more than 300 square feet.

Architect Chris Rose designed the cottages pro bono in the late 1980s, responding to the city's growing interest in dealing with the homeless.

"We kept having monthly meetings and the situation was getting worse and worse so I just, kind of on my own, had to go do something instead of just sitting there," he says.

Rose's design used panelized construction. Each cottage essentially was assembled from six big pieces: four wall pieces, a floor piece and a roof. The structure could be assembled by most anyone, and that helped keep their cost down. The originals cost only about $12,000 a pop.

Their design brought a lot of welcome attention to the young architect. Not only was there the national AIA honor award, but Rose also was mentioned in several publications, from U.S. News & World Report to Popular Mechanics. He lectured across the country and was going to be interviewed on "Good Morning America" but was bumped by the outbreak of the first Gulf War.

But two things worked against them over the long haul, says Charleston Housing Authority director Don Cameron. The authority maintained the homes and leased them to people leaving the city's homeless shelter but who were not quite ready for permanent housing.

First, Cameron says the original idea was not that they be clustered behind the Colin Grant Homes at Huger and Meeting streets. The first batch was erected there only as a sort of demonstration project.

The idea was that churches and synagogues would welcome one cottage on their property and help its resident get back on his or her feet.

For whatever reason, that didn't happen. Meanwhile, the federal grants that helped pay for this type of transitional housing gradually trickled out.

But the even greater problem could be found in the structures themselves. Cameron says the authority has rented them out as low-income housing since 2009, but they began to deteriorate in ways that were cost-prohibitive to fix.

"We finally got to a point about a year ago that we were too proud to lease them," he says. "While we could paint them, structurally we were very limited to what we could do to fix them up."

The panels developed leaks that were either difficult or impossible to fix without replacing the entire panel. "Anytime you messed with either the top of the panel or the bottom of the panel, you were weakening the integrity of the whole panel," Cameron says.

The six single cottages were demolished earlier this month with little to no fanfare.

Rose wasn't even aware of the demolitions until I told him. "I was going to nominate them for the 25-year (national AIA) award," he says, "but I guess I can't do it now."

Cameron says a plaque that had been affixed to one of the cottages likely will be displayed somewhere near the site, but the details still are being worked out.

"They were never intended as permanent housing," he says. "The temporary cottages did serve their purpose. They did help people buy more time so they could get their lives together and move onto the economy."

But that need still exists, and it's a shame these innovative cottages do not.

There is one small consolation: Three similar duplexes survive on E Street, and they look just like the cottages except that they're attached, gable to gable.

Cameron says the E Street homes have another important difference: They were constructed with a wooden frame, not panels, and can be more easily maintained.

"We look at that as permanent housing," he says, "whereas the cottages on Huger were always thought of as transitional or temporary."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.