The historic Henry P. Archer School building on Charleston's East Side won't be torn down for an affordable housing development.
That's what the Board of Architectural Review unanimously decided Wednesday, with two of the five members absent. In a relatively rare case, the city asked the board to rule on what, if any, parts of the structure could hypothetically be demolished to save money on redevelopment costs.
Board members agreed that the parts of the building constructed in the 1930s should remain, but they might consider allowing the demolition of the newer cafeteria added in 1961.
The city has been considering buying the Archer School from the Charleston County School District in a deal that would give the city an entire block of land in the rapidly gentrifying East Side neighborhood for a net cost of about $1 million. Mayor John Tecklenburg saw it as an opportunity to bring more affordable housing to the peninsula, where land costs have been soaring and driving up the costs of housing construction.
But City Council hasn't been sold on the idea yet. Members of the Real Estate Committee are concerned it would be impossible to make any housing there affordable if it costs too much to renovate the building. For one thing, it needs to be retrofitted to make it more resilient to earthquakes, which would be costly.
The school building occupies about a quarter of the 1½-acre property, so new housing could be built around the existing structure. Still, some council members said the deal with the school district would only be worth it if the buildings could be torn down.
"If the BAR will not let us demolish Archer, there is no way for it to be affordable," Councilman Bill Moody said last week.
Councilman Robert Mitchell, who represents the district, agreed.
"It’s been sitting there for years and years and nothing’s being done with it," he said. "If it’s torn down, we can put something there that’s good for the community."
Nearly everyone who weighed in on the situation opposed demolishing the historic brick buildings at Nassau and Jackson streets. Before its vote, the board received 19 letters and nearly a dozen comments from people who wanted to protect the old school.
Sally Ballard said historic schools such as Immaculate Conception School on Coming Street and Buist Academy on Calhoun Street have been preserved and redeveloped without needing to be torn down.
"It can be done," she said. "Don’t let them tear down this corner of history. Let’s let it live again."
East Side residents said they'd like to see affordable housing on the site, but they didn't want to lose a piece of the neighborhood's cultural history for it. They supported the board's stance on possibly allowing the cafeteria to be demolished, if needed.
The school has been vacant since 2010, which is why it looks pretty run down these days with some boarded up windows and overgrown shrubbery. But its history runs deep in the historically black neighborhood.
The original schoolhouse was built for black children in the segregated 1930s, with other wings added on over the years as its overcrowding problems grew. For decades, it was one of three elementary schools for black students in the city. Civil rights icon Septima P. Clark was a teacher there in the 1950s, until she was fired from the school district for working with NAACP.
Now, the board's decision will be reported to the Real Estate Committee, which will decide whether the city should still buy the property. The city's Design Division is doing an analysis of the site to figure out how much it might cost to renovate it.