Charleston’s unique culture could help land World Heritage status

Charleston’s Powder Magazine, built in 1713, and St. Philip’s Church (upper left) are among 38 historic sites listed in an early draft of Charleston’s World Heritage Site effort.

Those working to ensure that Charleston becomes the first U.S. city listed as a World Heritage Site are focusing less on its architectural grandeur than on its unique social blend — and they’re bringing in experts for advice.

In August, the city will host Gustavo Aroaz, president of the board of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, as well as a half-dozen other international heritage officials experienced with nominating and advising such sites.

Tom Aspinwall, director of Charleston’s effort, called Aroaz “sort of the godfather of the international heritage community” and said he and other experts will help the Lowcountry refine its nomination for the very competitive honor.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site list — the highest possible recognition for a historic site — includes more than 1,000 sites in about 160 countries.

But only 22 of them are found in the United States — and most of those are cultural monuments or national parks run by the National Park Service, such as the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. The Monumental Earthworks at Poverty Point in Louisiana was the nation’s most recent site added to the list.

Charleston’s 2008 preservation plan recommended pursuing the World Heritage designation, and businessman Stephen Ziff helped start a new nonprofit, the Charleston World Heritage Coalition, to reach that goal.

No other urban American historic district has been listed as a World Heritage Site, partly because of a federal law saying private property owners must give written consent to be included. Savannah and other cities have tried, without success, so far.

That unique American restriction poses one of the biggest challenges, said Bernd Paulowitz, a heritage and cultural information management consultant who has been advising Charleston.

Paulowitz said the old town in his native Salzburg, Austria, was listed without any requirement that all property owners sign a waiver regarding their property rights. Instead, it only had to show that the town had existing protections regarding its historic preservation, “and that is the case in Charleston,” he said.

Rather than trying to nominate all the properties in Charleston’s historic core, an early draft of the nomination blends 38 of downtown’s most historic buildings with rural sites illustrating the region’s plantation economy. Most are either government-owned buildings or parks, churches or sites owned by nonprofits.

The coalition also has raised and spent more than $120,000 last year, doing both historical research and community outreach. Aspinwall said it has received a lot of support, including backing from about 1,500 individuals and 350 businesses and nonprofits.

The main skeptics are those concerned that such a listing might increase the city’s already robust tourism load, but Aspinwall said that is unfounded.

“What it will do is attract a high-value cultural visitor who supports local businesses and nonprofits, who comes from farther away and spends more money,” he said.

An early draft of its nomination notes that Charleston and the Carolina Colony were founded as a money-making enterprise based on agriculture, trade, religious tolerance, an enslaved majority mostly from Africa and a culturally mixed planter and commercial elite mainly from Europe and the Caribbean.

“Nowhere else in North America are the different expressions of this merchant-planter society so integrated into a region’s culture and built environment than in Charleston, where extant civic, private and religious buildings and landscapes continue to provide a unique and holistic testimony to this distinct colonial, federal and antebellum culture.”

The goal is to refine that nomination in hopes that the National Park Service will include Charleston on its list of tentative sites next year. If and when that happens, then the nonprofit’s work will kick into a higher gear, as it assembles a nomination that could stretch to about 1,000 pages.

Aspinwall said the ideal application will position Charleston as something relatively unique on the international list. While the city has an extensive history of slavery and impressive architecture, many other sites also have been recognized for those areas.

“Charleston’s nomination will be less about its architectural grandeur and more about the very distinctive culture that was created here by people of different nationalities and races and religions,” he said. “This is very competitive. ... It’s about best positioning ourselves in a historic context, internationally speaking, but also best positioning ourselves in what we may be up against.”

The upcoming meetings will feature public lectures on Aug. 19, followed by a day of smaller, closed work sessions and tours. On Aug. 21, the experts will reconvene and offer suggestions about refining Charleston’s draft.

Paulowitz said another big challenge in seeking World Heritage status is technical — drafting the necessary language regarding a site’s management, integrity and authenticity, and folding together the different stories and sites.

While he would not predict Charleston’s chance of success, he praised the surviving sites that portray the city’s colonial and antebellum societies.

“It’s not for us to be the judge,” he said, “but we would not have taken on this work if we did not think Charleston would make it.”

Aspinwall noted that Charleston is the birthplace of the preservation movement in the United States, and the World Heritage Site push is a way to ensure the city remains a leader in this area.

“It’s very important we continue that tradition and we seek to better our standing — not just in our country but in the international community — as preservationists,” he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.