Making a splash in Colonial Lake

This rendering shows how the northeastern corner of Colonial Lake would look after a planned $5.2 million upgrade. The corner at Rutledge Avenue and Beaufain Street — like other areas — will have new trees, paths and plantings.

Colonial Lake, one of Charleston's iconic public places, looks much like it did when it was built about 125 years ago.

That could change soon.

The Charleston Parks Conservancy, the Historic Charleston Foundation and the city are kicking off a $5.2 million push to improve its water quality, raise its level and upgrade its surrounding walkways, trees and plantings.

There's a little something for everyone: Birds, bees, butterflies, fish — and the thousands of people who enjoy it every day.

It's the highest-profile project to date for the conservancy, which businesswoman and philanthropist Darla Moore created five years ago with a $10 million gift and the hope of lifting the city's parks to a new level, much like the Central Park Conservancy rejuvenated New York's Central Park.

Moore said the idea began with her husband, Richard, shortly after they bought a home in downtown Charleston. “We have this incredible architecture, it goes without saying,” she said, “but we have all this tired stuff around it.”

The conservancy aims to raise $1 million for the Colonial Lake makeover and another $200,000 to maintain its new plantings. The city plans to spend $4 million on the project.

The plan, developed by the local landscape architecture firm DesignWorks, has three main elements:

Infrastructure: The lake currently is tied to the Ashley River through one pipe, and its mechanism for opening and closing has broken.

The work will create two new openings that link the lake with the Ashley, and they will be operable so the lake can be flushed more thoroughly. Also, its level will rise about a foot or two, within about 18 inches of the top.

“The intent is to significantly improve the water quality to match, as much as possible, the Ashley River,” Conservancy Executive Director Harry Lesesne said.

Hardscape: The concrete walkways and sidewalks ringing the lake will be torn up and replaced with a new series of walkways made of concrete, gravel and oyster shells. Rutledge and Ashley avenues will be narrowed a little — but still keep the same traffic lanes and on-street parking — to create more room in the park.

A granite coping stone will line the edge, much like the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

New lighting will be installed just under the stone to help accent the lake at night, without creating excessive glare. The lake's bottom will be cleaned of debris but not dredged. Its center won't have a fountain but will keep a foundation for a Christmas tree.

Plantings: A series of new trees will be planted along Ashley and Rutledge, and the design calls for gathering spaces with trees and planting beds in each of the four corners.

The project also aims to excite people about the lake by highlighting its history. Research shows the name “Colonial Lake” is a bit of a misnomer, but it probably sounds better than “Victorian Tidal Basin.”

The area was declared a city commons before the Revolutionary War, but it remained a sort of industrial backwater until the 1880s.

That's when the city created the concrete lake in response to a lawsuit: Several residents filed the suit, claiming the city had sold or leased off the commons for private gain.

The conservancy hopes to get more stories and photos from people about how they used the lake, partly to fulfill its wider mission of connecting people more with the city's parks.

The lake will be completely fenced off while this transformation takes place. The best guess is that construction will occur between May 2014 and the summer of 2015.

“It will be the same kind of park it is now,” Lesesne said, “just a whole lot nicer.”

Reach Robert Behre at or at 937-5771.