A high-ranking official from the Commonwealth of the Bahamas might seem an unlikely person to help chart the future course of Charleston's historic preservation efforts, but Davidson L. Hepburn has worn many hats.

As president of the United Nation's 35th General Conference, Hepburn could offer key advice and support to those hoping to make Charleston the first American city placed on the United Nations' World Heritage List.

Hepburn, who currently chairs the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corp. of The Bahamas, is in town this week and has been kept very busy.

The idea for his visit took root because of a chance meeting with Lowcountry resident Rusty Denman at a church in the Bahamas. Shortly afterward, the Charleston World Heritage Coalition - the new nonprofit hoping to get the city recognized as a World Heritage Site - invited Hepburn as its guest.

Hepburn's informal visit will raise awareness of the Charleston World Heritage Coalition, and he could offer advice as the coalition's application takes shape, coalition executive director Thomas Aspinwall said.

The United Nations currently recognizes 981 world heritage sites, including the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Giza and Machu Picchu. But the United States has only 21 of them - mostly federally owned landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park.

That's partly because Congress passed a law forbidding any World Heritage application without the consent of 100 percent of the property owners, a hurdle that so far has prevented any of the United States' historic districts from making the list.

Local preservationists had been discouraged from applying because of the daunting task of convincing every homeowner in the district, but this new attempt will knit together about 20 prominent civic and religious buildings.

"Charleston's domestic architecture is certainly important, but we feel the civic, religious and community architecture is representative of a distinctly American city and really the embodiment of the American experience, both good and bad," Aspinwall said.

To enlist Hepburn's help, organizers pulled out all the stops, with a series of dinners in private homes, special tours, a Spoleto performance and meetings with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, artist Jonathan Green and others.

Hepburn and his wife, Dr. Ada Thompson-Hepburn, met Thursday evening with Historic Charleston Foundation Director Kitty Robinson, Preservation Society of Charleston Chairman Kristopher King and others.

The hour-long discussion ranged from keeping the city's neighborhood authentic to managing tourism to the political challenges of getting designated as a World Heritage Site.

Hepburn offered encouraging words and said Charleston is well on the road to getting listed. "The only thing I can say is for you not to get discouraged," he said. "It's going to happen."

Thompson-Hepburn said she has been impressed to see Charleston for the first time. "It's just wow, wow, wow, wow for 24 hours," she said.

The city's preservation ethic also is stronger than anything found in their home country, Hepburn said.

"In the Bahamas, people just tear down anything, and they tear them down to make parking lots," he said. "I know you have some ideas I can take back to Nassau and put into play."

The Charleston World Heritage Coalition hopes to send off its detailed application to the National Park Service within a few years.

When deemed worthy, the application then would be forwarded to the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, which ultimately would vote to accept it, turn it down, or refer it back to the United States for revision. That process could take several more years.

Those working on Charleston's World Heritage application say their success would demonstrate Charleston's excellent quality of life and help attract investment of talent and industry as well as grant money for our cultural and religious institutions.

"World Heritage designation can be used as a platform to achieve other things," Aspinwall said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.