Father wants to raze historic house where daughter died: BAR says no to emotional appeal

Paul Saylor's daughter, Olivia Saylor, was killed in a fire at this house at 108M Smith St. He wanted to have the home demolished and replaced with a landscaped lot, but his request was denied.

As if Paul Saylor wasn't coping with enough after his 21-year-old daughter Olivia died in a New Year's Day blaze, someone recently stole the gas grill off the charred piazza and ripped a utility meter off the wall where she once lived.

"Just unbelievable," he said Wednesday while standing outside what remains of the charred home at 108M Smith St. in Charleston.

It didn't get any easier for him a few hours later when the Atlanta businessman went before the city's Board of Architectural Review seeking permission to tear down what remains of the 19th century home.

Raw emotion couldn't quite overcome the city's entrenched preservation ethic.

Board members acknowledged that this was one of the most difficult demolition decisions they've ever faced before voting 5-2 to deny his request.

Afterward, Saylor said he has no inclination to sell or repair the house, which is scarred with soot, missing most of its windows and boarded up with plywood.

"What they didn't focus on is they can't force me to rebuild," he said. "What I feel sorry for are the other neighbors that will have to look at it. It's not fair to them."

Built before 1888, the house underwent a significant renovation about 25 years ago that moved its location, gave it a new, higher foundation and replaced its windows, doors and other details.

Alice Paylor, Saylor's attorney, said Saylor wanted to create a walled garden in the space and would work with the city and neighbors on the specifics of the plan. "He's not going to use it as a parking lot or any other use like that," she said.

City Architect Dennis Dowd recommended demolition, partly because the oldest and most historic parts of the home, the framing and roof trusses, cannot be seen. Almost everything else is new.

Board members Chris Schmitt, E.E. Fava and Phyllis Ewing agreed with Dowd, while board Chairman Craig Bennett and members Robert Stockton, Erika Harrison and Robert DeMarco voted to refuse demolition.

Some observers felt that denying demolition would have been a slam dunk except for the unique heartache involved. Bennett and Stockton noted that the board regularly rejects demolition bids on structures in far worse shape.

DeMarco said, "If we were getting paid, I'd ask for an increase in salary to deal with this issue."

Dozens of Olivia Saylor's friends and former College of Charleston classmates packed the meeting room. Several wore buttons with her image as they supported her father's request. After the vote, a few shed tears and another murmured in anger, "Old burnt wood."

The Smith Street neighbors seemed evenly split. Several supported Saylor's plan for a landscaped garden, and said it would complement the street. Others felt that a building needed to remain there, that its demolition would be like removing a tooth in a smile.

Robert Gurley of the Preservation Society also urged the board to save the building, noting that Saylor's structural engineer ranked it an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being in great shape.

"Throughout its history, Charleston has always rebuilt after tragedy," he said. "We ask that that be done in this case."

But the notion of rebuilding seemed as offensive to Saylor as suggestions that a scholarship would be a more suitable memorial than a landscaped garden.

He had hired a lawyer, structural engineer, contractor and landscape architect to help him navigate Charleston's building regulations and zoning laws in hopes that he could find some measure of peace -- and create a place where he would find comfort in returning one day.

But all that was not enough for his wishes to prevail.

"My daughter loved Charleston. My daughter loved her neighborhood. My daughter loved her house," he said. "The best thing I could do for that memory is to do something that would not offend her if she were alive. ... I think she'd find it comforting to know if she can't live here, no one else can either."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.