75 years later, preservation still big business in Charleston
“The preservation movement has one great curiosity. There is never retrospective controversy or regret. Preservationists are the only people in the world who are invariably confirmed in their wisdom after the fact.”
—John Kenneth Galbraith
Is Charleston really the nation's best-preserved city? It's more debatable than one might think.
True, the city has thousands of historic buildings that have survived hurricanes, fires, wars and other ravages of time.
But Charleston also has lost hundreds of buildings and continues to lose them. Some have been replaced with something better, some with parking lots.
Architectural photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston visited the Lowcountry in the early 20th century and photographed many of its most notable buildings as part of her larger effort to recorded endangered Southern architecture.
Her first visit here came in 1937, shortly after Charleston had passed the nation's first preservation zoning law — one that created its historic district and Board of Architectural Review.
Click here to see interactive photos of the buildings then and now.
Today, retracing her footsteps paints a unique picture of this city's preservation successes — and failures.
Though a camera lens, one can see how, even with its best preservation efforts, Charleston remains in a constant state of change.
Evan Thompson, director of Charleston's Preservation Society, said the sheer density of development downtown has masked the city's preservation failures.
“When you look at her photographs, even the photos a few years later from the 'This is Charleston' book, you can see dozens upon dozens upon dozens of historic buildings that have been lost that look just like the buildings we appreciate today.”
“We lost so many, and Charleston still gives the general appearance of being very well-preserved,” he said.
Robert Russell, a College of Charleston architectural historian, agreed. Russell said he counted about 4,000 Charleston single houses on 1888 maps, but a 1970s survey found only 2,700 remained.
“We persuade ourselves that the way the city looks now is the way it's always looked,” he said. “Certainly there's much to be glad about in the fact that there's so much still here, but I would say it's much more accidental than it was intentional. That's something that Charlestonians have been loath to admit.”
Johnston was born in 1864, received her first camera as a gift from George Eastman and spent her early career photographing U.S. presidents and other dignitaries.
She was 73 years old by the time she made her way to South Carolina. Thompson said she wasn't motivated by profit but instead by an artistic sense to capture the area's crumbling grandeur — much like other artists of the early 20th century Charleston Renaissance.
“She was doing it because she felt it needed to be done more than anything else,” he said. “She believed in preservation through photographic documentation. There are angles and views and perspectives that often are not seen in photographs. She thought she could do a recording of things that would be lost.”
Johnston's photos, available on the Library of Congress' website, also illustrate how the city's appearance has evolved dramatically even where its buildings have remained.
Johnston's photos show very few palmetto trees, fewer shade trees and far fewer cars than one sees today.
“Charleston is a place of ongoing change,” Thompson said.
Kitty Robinson, director of the Historic Charleston Foundation, believes Charleston is the nation's best-preserved city, but that it also takes a constant commitment to remain that way.
“We're committed to homes in the historic district, but we wish we were able to do so much more,” she said. “Protecting and preserving houses and properties is a forever project. There's not an end. We'll be in that business always.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.