Charleston officials cut through smoke in chimney debate

This chimney stands as the last remnant of a World War II German prisoner of war camp on Colony Drive West of the Ashley.The family that owns the land on which it sits plans to remove it after City Council voted against giving it historic, protected status. File/Brad Nettles/Staff Buy this photo

There is history worth saving, and then there are things better left in the past.

Charleston officials should be commended for recognizing the difference.

Earlier this week, City Council denied a request by planning staff to preserve an old chimney in West Ashley built by German prisoners in World War II.

The chimney is all that remains of an old POW camp here, and it is certainly a small part of Charleston's long and storied history.

Very small.

Some city staffers thought the chimney might be worth saving, but the historic overlay zoning they wanted council to approve would have forced the property owners to maintain that relic forever.

And they're Jewish.

Frankly, preserving German artifacts - especially from the 1940s - is not a popular Jewish hobby.

"I don't want anything to do with any German artifacts, especially German chimneys," says Mickey Aberman, whose family owns the property.

That is a completely reasonable stance, at least to anyone who remembers what Nazi Germany did to Jewish people.

But not everyone could see that.

Property rights?

In public meetings, some folks argued that the city should save the chimney.

They said it was history. Besides, some people said, the property makes a nice park.

What happened to private property rights?

Never mind that such a move would have amounted to the city forcing a Jewish family to preserve the history of a country that tried to exterminate their ancestors.

Of course, no one put it in such harsh terms. They argued that the chimney was a remnant of the American victory over Germany. It's American history.

Forgive the family if they don't see it that way.

It would be one thing if the family had known the chimney's history when they bought the property. But they didn't. When it was just a chimney, it didn't bother them.

Finding out it was German changed everything.

"I grew up in the South and, as a kid, I thought the Confederate flag was pretty cool and 'Dixie' was a good song," Aberman says.

"But it has a different meaning for some people. You have to think whether you want to inflict that on anyone."

He makes a good point.

When this first came up, city staffers thought it was worth having this conversation. Well, notice that none of the preservation groups got involved in this.

So now it's been debated, and the council - and planning commission - came to the right conclusion.

History may be important, but it would have been pretty cruel to inflict this on anyone.

Going, going ...

City Councilman Bill Moody, who was against this from the start, says this is not just about one family.

If you designate something a historic area, you are basically inviting people to drive in and see it.

And that's not what residential Colony Drive needs. Bad idea.

He also didn't think the arguments for saving the chimney were very good. You don't even have to be Jewish to be offended.

After all, those German soldiers were trying to kill Americans.

But ultimately, it comes down to the rights of private citizens. And it's not this family's job to provide public space to anyone.

"If you want it as a park, then go buy it," Moody says.

And if the city had forced the family to keep that chimney, you can bet the land would have been for sale.

But now it's over. The chimney will be gone soon. Aberman wanted the bulldozers ready to go as soon as the history overlay zoning was defeated.

See, the family had a permit to demolish the chimney years ago when the property was in the county but held off because someone had asked to take it off their hands.

But the deal fell through, and then the property got annexed - and all this started.

Despite that, the family remains reasonable.

A man from Florence County says he wants the chimney, and Aberman says they will probably give him a couple of weeks to figure out how to haul it off. Given their past troubles, you can't blame them for not giving the guy more time.

So if you want to see a small piece of Charleston's mid-20th century past, get over to Colony Drive soon.

Because one way or another, that chimney is about to be history.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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