Mutual fund founder says numbers not whole story

John C. Bogle, retired founder of mutual fund company Vanguard.

One of the most intriguing houses in downtown Charleston isn't actually a house at all.

Literally a work of art, the "House of the Future" is an unusually narrow two-story structure at Reid and America streets.

The house and the park diagonally across the way were among 18 art installations built for the 1991 Spoleto Festival's "Places with a Past" exhibition, which created a big stir on the international art scene.

New York artist David Hammons created the work with Charleston building contractor Albert Alston.

All 18 installations were designed to be temporary, but as everyone familiar with this city knows, it's never easy to demolish a house in Charleston -- even one that no one has ever lived in.

Meanwhile, Alston is committed to keeping this house well-preserved and an asset to its gritty but improving neighborhood.

"It has changed the whole image of the neighborhood and has put Charleston on the map when it comes to art," he says as he takes a break from repairing a window sash.

The city owns the land the house sits on, but Alston has taken ownership of everything else.

He aims to fix the crack on its rear stuccoed chimney, repair the failing wooden shakes on the roof and ensure the yard stays well-swept -- an African tradition aimed to protect from weeds, bugs, snakes and fire.

Alston also plans to fix up the first floor's interior so the space can be used as a small art gallery.

"We'll just utilize it to enhance the community from a cultural standpoint," he says. "I can tell by the change in the neighborhood that people are really into art and really appreciate it."

As he works on the house, friends drive by, roll down their windows and say hi. Tour guide Alphonso Brown drives his bus by and points it out. Occasionally, camera-wielding architecture students, professors and art connoisseurs pay a visit.

The house was built from scrap material that Alston had acquired from decades of work on local homes. It has metal, slate and wooden roof sections, and more than four kinds of siding. Small signs identify different features.

Meanwhile, he hears from passers-by who think it's a real house ("Where is the kitchen?" "Where is the bathroom?"), as well as from those anxious about its future ("You're not taking it down, are you?").

More recently, he finished a far simpler work of art across America Street. A lonely door stands perched on a brick threshold near the sidewalk along a vacant, low-lying lot. Alston says the work is a meditation on gentrification.

But it's the house that he considers his most enduring work, one that he wants to see evolve into more of an active artistic place, complete with a gallery and outdoor jazz events.

"This is the piece that showed me how powerful art is and about what you can do in the community, how you can transform the world through art," he says.

"To the untrained mind, you have to realize anytime you look at a house, you're looking at a piece of art. You might not think of the architect or the builder as an artist, but he is."

Because of its recycled materials and unique artistic vision, the "House of the Future" never looked new.

Because of Alston's continuing commitment, it has never looked old or run-down.

Because of him, the "House of the Future" still has one.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or rbehre@postandcourier.com.