It seems odd to admit that the city of Charleston has no formal standards for preserving historic buildings.
And it may seem odder still that some people bristle at the idea of adding them.
But that's in fact the case. The city's newest architectural debate is a rather esoteric one. It's a debate not about a particular building but about the collection of ground rules and processes by which the city approves new buildings and changes to buildings in the historic district.
It's a debate spawned by the city's preservation plan that was unveiled a few weeks ago and will be up for formal approval sometime next year.
Part of that plan recommends giving property owners and developers more information and education about what the city wants from rehabilitated or restored buildings in its historic district.
Toward that end, the plan suggests that the city formally adopt the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's standards for historic preservation, a set of guidelines created years ago to ensure that people receiving historic tax credits were in fact respecting, not abusing, their historic properties.
The Preservation Society of Charleston, which supports the city adopting these standards, recently brought their author to town to make the case.
W. Brown Morton, a professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, was the bureaucrat in the Interior Department who took the first stab at writing the standards after Congress passed the Tax Reform Act of 1976.
Morton says he was influenced by the 1964 Venice Charter that emphasized the need to preserve ancient monuments in the full richness of their authenticity.
His standards have been revised twice since his original 1978 version, and Morton says he regrets how the language has become less flexible.
For instance, he originally wrote that "every reasonable effort shall be made to provide a compatible use for a property requiring minimal alternation." Today, that standard reads, "A property will be used as it was historically or be given a new use that requires minimal change."
Robert Russell, historic preservation professor at the College of Charleston, says the hardening of those standards is one reason to oppose the idea that the city should adopt them.
He notes that adaptive reuse projects such as the Murray Vocational School on Chisolm Street, the Craft School on Legare Street and the Immaculate Conception School on St. Philip Street (all converted into residences) may no longer be possible under the standards.
He also notes the standards might even block local efforts to make traditionally designed additions to older buildings.
"My hesitancy comes from the fact that these standards have been used to beat up people, especially people who want to do traditional architecture," Russell says.
He notes a standard for additions to rehabilitated buildings says additions should be "differentiated from the old," adding, "It's got to be distinct, which means it can't be historical, which means it's got to be an abstraction."
Morton concedes some poorly trained bureaucrats have turned the standards into "The Ten Commandments, an exercise which I term 'cheap thinking.' "
However, Brown still believes the standards can help Charleston.
"You must protect your city, but you must not adopt standards and criteria for change that will create, by faking the past, a false impression of an historic Charleston that in fact never existed," he says. "The Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation can and should help you in your truth-telling.
"There is an essential tension in every historic community such as Charleston between what many people think their beloved place has been and should remain and what others think their community has never been and should become. The ideas of the former group may be anathema to ideas of the latter group and vice versa.
"However, I am convinced that it is out of this creative tension between these two sets of hopes that the future appearance of the city will be born."
Whatever the outcome of this debate about standards, Charleston shouldn't abandon the informal standard Board of Architectural Review members have tried to apply since 1930: plain old common sense.