History’s guardian

43 Laurens St. after, and before (below), renovations.

It’s hard to imagine Ansonborough was ever a slum, the sort of place where the kids were actually called ’borough rats.

Today it is one of downtown Charleston’s most beautiful neighborhoods, six blocks of immaculate mansions and single-homes that often sell for upwards of $2 million or more.

But about 50 years ago, when a young preservation group called the Historic Charleston Foundation began buying and renovating dozens of those houses, they were often paying less than $10,000 a pop.

Winslow Hastie, director of preservation and museums for the organization, admits that today those prices seem laughable. And no doubt, many locals probably got a chuckle out of the plan at the time. It must have seemed like folly, a preservation organization trying something much more ambitious than saving a few old buildings.

“It’s huge,” Hastie said, “It was the first time an organization decided to save a neighborhood.”

But in the last 65 years, Historic Charleston Foundation has not only resurrected a neighborhood, it has helped preserve a city.

“It is an organization of thoughtful people,” said Mayor Joe Riley. “They’ve done so much for the city. Charleston’s first preservation plan, a gift to the city in 1974, contained a blueprint for so many things that have happened here.”

Riley credits the group with pressing the city to develop its Waterfront Park and for its support of Charleston Place, which sparked a revitalization of downtown. But those are only a few of the areas where the group has steered the city and aided in its attempts to become one of the most remarkably preserved cities in the nation:

The Foundation pushed the city to triple the size of Charleston’s historic district and give the Board of Architectural Review more control over what can be done to homes in the that district.

It helped influence the design of the federal and county courthouses, ensuring the Four Corners of Law at Meeting and Broad streets remained compatible with the rest of the city.

It was involved in the purchase and preservation of Lowcountry plantations, including Drayton Hall on the Ashley River, Mulberry Plantation in Berkeley County and the Charles Pinckney home site in Mount Pleasant.

It led efforts on the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force to conduct archaeological studies of the city’s early colonial walls, bastions and redans.

Its tourism-management study led to a city plan that limited the size and operation of tour buses and carriages in the city.

“We’ve touched a lot of this community and its environment in our time,” said Kitty Robinson, executive director of the Foundation, “and we plan to stay involved and lead.”

Early efforts

Historic Charleston Foundation was incorporated in 1947 as an educational, nonprofit preservation organization. It began raising money with a Festival of Houses, a popular event for locals and tourists that continues to this day — and which helps pay for the organization’s work.

After early efforts to restore the pediment of the Old Exchange Building, the Nathaniel Russell house and the Bennett Rice Mill on the waterfront, it established the nation’s first revolving fund. The Frances Edmunds Revolving Fund was used to buy houses in Ansonborough, rehabilitate them and sell them — with protective easements in place to make sure they were protected.

Evan R. Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston — the oldest community-based historic preservation group in the country — calls that revolving fund the most important and influential work that the Historic Charleston Foundation has ever done.

“Ansonborough is a model for ‘area preservation’ in this country,” Thompson said.

Across the Lowcountry, the Historic Charleston Foundation holds preservation easements on about 400 properties. That includes nearly 70 buildings in Ansonborough that have been rehabbed and protected by the foundation.

The foundation’s greatest success, however, touched off some criticism of gentrification. Ansonborough quickly became a neighborhood too affluent for the residents who lived there in the first half of the century.

It is an issue the organization is keenly aware of. In the 1970s, it started its first plan for stabilizing neighborhoods for low- and moderate-income families on the peninsula, calling diversity an important component of any living city.

Those efforts continue today with its neighborhood impact initiative. In partnership with the city and Habitat for Humanity, Historic Charleston Foundation is helping to rehab freedmans’ cottages and other homes owned in low-income neighborhoods on the upper reaches of the peninsula.

The idea, Historic Charleston officials say, is to preserve the city’s historic integrity while allowing the development that is needed for a city to grow. The biggest misconception some visitors to Charleston can come away with, organization officials say, is that the city has been preserved now and all is well. “This is not a theme park,” Hastie said. “Preservation takes constant diligence and perseverance.”

That means there is no shortage of work for the organization, and other preservation groups. Right now, the foundation is reviewing historic district zoning, looking for ways to make it more customized for the unique peninsular landscape.

And for the past couple of years, the foundation has taken a supporting role in discussions for developing State Ports Authority land on the Cooper River adjacent to Ansonborough and in the ongoing cruise ship debate. The foundation offered the city a proposed ordinance for regulating the ships. City Council ignored the suggestion, but Riley said it does not indicate any tension between the group and the city.

“You have with government and friends, people who are not always going to see eye to eye,” Riley said. “But we see eye to eye more often than we disagree.”

The one constant is that Historic Charleston Foundation has, in 65 years, earned its place at the table in any policy discussion that affects the city.

It operates today much as it began, with a self-perpetuating board of 19 members, 89 employees, a $4 million budget and a $6.7 million endowment. It raises money for its work through donations and by selling reproduction furniture, decorative arts and books at two shops in the city.

“I think the most important thing we do is that we do what we say we’re going to do — we work with integrity and we’re very proud of that,” Robinson said. “We want to preserve and protect the history, architecture and culture of the city, and educate the public about the importance of preservation.”

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at@BriHicks_PandC.