Mansion showing its age

The house at 62 Montagu St. has been in a state of disrepair and semi-renovation for decades.

The Preservation Society's letter to Charleston's Board of Architectural Review began this way:

“The deplorable condition of the handsome old residence at the northwest corner of Gadsden and Montagu streets was discussed, and the board was directed to look further into the matter. This clearly seems to us to be a case of destruction by neglect.”

The letter's date? Jan. 20, 1967.

Incredibly, the four-story Greek Revival home at 62 Montagu St. has lingered in an unrestored and uninhabited (by people anyway) state for about half a century.

Talk about a survivor.

More than a decade ago —about a generation after the society's letter and shortly after 62 Montagu made headlines again when its piazzas crashed down — Charleston passed a new ordinance to halt demolition by neglect.

Specifically, the new law gave the city authority to intervene to save a building considered important to a neighborhood or the city as a whole — not just a building considered a threat to public health or safety (the city already had that power).

But the law has its limitations.

To understand them, one need only consider the odd saga that's played out at Montagu and Gadsden, where one of the city's largest antebellum homes has stood vacant for decades, its owners doing just enough —a little repair here, a feint of putting it up for sale there — to keep the city at bay.

The home was owned by Harold Holliday, who died several years ago. His descendent, who lives in Columbia and now owns the property, couldn't be reached for comment.

Tim Keane, director of Charleston's Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, says the owners have been cooperative when the city has pointed out problems such as an overgrown lawn or trash in the yard. They put wood siding around the basement to try to secure it and have replaced the roof.

Neighbors are confounded, frustrated and probably have given up hope by now.

“Certainly, the house isn't in the state that we would prefer it to be in, but it's a big structure that will take a lot of resources to get renovated,” he says.

Keane says the city soon may speak to the owner about the main exterior stairs and columns around the Gadsden Street entryway, which are essentially gone. “The rest of it is kind of shored up and stabilized. It's not deteriorating as we speak. It's kind of sitting there being maintained in the state that it's in.”

Essentially, the demolition by neglect ordinance gives the city the power if a significant building is threatened by inaction, but if the owner takes the necessary steps to stabilize, the ordinance can't require them to fix it up all the way.

“We want them to renovate it, but if they don't have the means to do that right now, what do we do?” Keane says. “All we can ask them to do is protect the building.”

“It's certainly much better protected now than it was,” he adds. “We've taken it about as far with this owner as we can.”

It should be noted that Charleston has dozens of other properties that have languished in similarly poor condition for years, but most of them — such as the houses on Washington Street or western Spring Street — aren't in nearly as desirable a neighborhood.

Maybe something will change for the better at 62 Montagu, and maybe not. Either way, it's clear that property rights cut both ways, government can't solve every problem, preservationists don't win every battle, and this city's preservation is, at the end of the day, attributable to thousands of people who have, often at great financial and even emotional cost, done the right thing.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.