Pioneer helped preserve history


Frances Ravenel Smythe Edmunds, a pioneer in Charleston's preservation movement who helped shape the present-day look of the city, died Friday. She was 93.

Edmunds spent 38 years at the Historic Charleston Foundation, moving from tour director to executive director, and helped start the fund that saved historic homes from demolition in the Ansonborough area and throughout the peninsula.

"When the history of the 20th century in Charleston is written, prominent will be the story of Frances Edmunds and her role in our city," said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley on Friday. "The leadership she gave the foundation made it not only an institution of indescribable influence in our city, but it also became a national force, the gold standard of historic preservation. I thought the world of her, and her contributions to our city are enormous, and they are lasting."

A Charleston native, Edmunds earned a bachelor's degree from the College of Charleston in 1939 and worked for The Evening Post for a brief time before her marriage in 1943 to Charleston lawyer S. Henry Edmunds.

She was the then-year-old foundation's first employee in 1948. Edmunds became the executive director in 1955, a position she held until her retirement in 1985. During her tenure, the Historic Charleston Foundation saved many historic buildings that were in danger of demolition or being sold to buyers who would not respect their architectural integrity.

"Frances was very smart," Riley said. "She was very strong, and she was very charming. And she had an amazing sense of good design. She was somebody who wasn't formally trained, but she was a natural."

During her career, she won several awards for her preservation efforts, including the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award, the nation's highest honor in the area of preservation work, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1971.

"The National Trust for Historic Preservation mourns the passing of this true pioneer of the preservation movement," said Richard Moe, president of the organization. "Frances Edmunds passionately fought to protect Charleston's historic buildings from demolition and insensitive new development during her long career. Frances' long train of accomplishments and legacy will continue to inspire preservationists for years to come."

Jonathan Poston, who was hired by Edmunds in 1982 and worked for her until her retirement, said she was "extremely forward thinking. She saw things that needed to happen long before they did. She was the person who figured out the best way to save the old railroad center that's now the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. She started the first revolving fund in '58 and '59 that bought the first buildings in Ansonborough, one of her biggest legacies. She conceived that Drayton Hall should be saved and opened to the public."

Poston said Edmunds fought many zoning battles, but "she knew how to pick her battles. For instance, she decided not to oppose the development of Charleston Place but instead to work with the idea. I think it's important that she understood things like that. She knew how to deal with some really tough developers and people wanting to do things she thought would be wrong for Charleston."

In addition, he said, "she had an incredible innate sense of design and what was appropriate for the city. She was very quick to recognize bad design and lack of proportion. She really understood the city."

Poston left Charleston last year to serve as director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's southwestern regional office. In an interview before he left town, he said the "Best Frances Edmunds quote" was "What's that?" He recalled the way she used an ivory African dagger to disarm developers seeking her favor on their downtown project. They would lay out their plans on her desk, and while they were explaining something, she would abruptly slap the dagger down on a different part of the rendering and ask her two-word question.

After her retirement, the foundation named a renovated 1930s gas station at Meeting and Chalmers streets as the France R. Edmunds Center for Historic Preservation. The building is dedicated to public education and provides exhibits relating to the history and preservation of Charleston, as well as architectural artifacts salvaged from grand Charleston buildings that have been destroyed.

The foundation also named its highest award the Frances Edmunds Award in her honor, and established the Frances R. Edmunds Society to honor "her indomitable spirit of leadership and her 'can-do' attitude."

Edmunds also received the U.S. Interior Department's conservation Service Award, and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Edmunds was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 1998.

Arrangements are being handled by Stuhr's downtown.