I recently sipped again at the fount of disappointment: the Board of Architectural Review. Last time it wouldn’t allow a downtown house to be painted. It stands today among its identical neighbors, the only unpainted one. But the more recent BAR meeting I attended was more heartbreaking.
Two houses were presented, both appraised at $0 and with insurmountable problems, ineligible for loans and permits, inaccessible or having no foundations, unsafe to work on, falling apart, oddities in the neighborhood, oddly raised or leaning and distinctly “not economic” to rehab.
Yet, the board denied demolition to these hapless owners, in spite of the fact that these houses are common, plentiful and located where their demolition would help the street and have little effect on the city as a whole. The owners are asked to take a financial hit for preservation. Their land is even rendered valueless, since who would buy it with a useless house on it that cannot be demolished?
The board then lightened up on the next applicants: a business consortium eager to demolish 249 Meeting, an empty “Deco” style building, in need of rehab. Anchored at a desirable commercial location in our most historic district and well worth some investment, it was built in the 1920s, nearly 100 years ago.
The moderator and one board member favored the request of a public commenter that the pleasing Deco facade be saved, refurbished and incorporated into the requested new hotel, keeping an authentic appearance as opposed another a no-history new face.
Another board member moved firmly to demolish, reasoning the original form might have been worth preserving, but, since it had been “renovated into a Deco style in the ’50s,” demolish. This stance (does the board think the ’50s was the Deco period?) was in spite of testimony to the age of the Deco renovation offered by an eyewitness. This odd claim quickly enabled a vote to demolish. Possibly they just weren’t listening, had already decided before any hearing or didn’t want the developers to suffer any “economic” difficulty.
Somehow they twisted the ’20s Deco style into a “ ’50’s style,” too recent to fit in. But 249 Meeting was not “significantly altered” in form in the ’50s — it only had minor Deco details added, and much before, likelier in the ’30s, which makes the style about 70 years old on a building almost 100 years old. Plenty of locals could attest to the building being old and Deco prior to 1952 when my sister and I spent time there. Why wouldn’t a 1920 building, even if restyled in the ’30s, warrant standing as part of Charleston’s historic fabric? This was a period when our mothers danced the Charleston. A new hotel could easily embrace this motif and thereby distinguished itself.
Arguments about age and too many old buildings being lost on wonderful historic Meeting Street didn’t resonate with the board. Many are replacement buildings, presumably approved by the board as “fitting in.” The BAR has argued that a homeowner can’t even replace a frequently rotting pillar with undetectable rot-resistant fake wood because “these little things subtly damage authenticity” and erode that which keeps Charleston great. And it has ruled that current taste is not valid when asking permission to renovate. We have preserved quirky as well as standard styles.
Now we seem to have an attitude of no demolition, no matter what, except for some, where it is demolition, no matter what.
Maybe the new mission statement is: Make Charleston great for business and tourism. The downside of good economic times: When developers talk, preservation takes a walk.
Where are our historic BAR principles?