All that’s left of the historic school building that collapsed at 11½ St. Philip St. in the spring of 2017 are a couple of partial brick walls braced with lumber. So the Preservation Society of Charleston won’t oppose a demolition permit when it comes before the city’s Board of Architectural Review on Thursday.
What happened to the building, according to some critics within Charleston preservation circles, is sometimes called “demolition by neglect.” That’s when an owner unwilling or unable to restore a historic building and unable to get a demolition permit simply neglects the property and lets time and gravity take their inevitable toll.
But Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society, said the impending loss was really “a failure of process.” Without blaming anyone or any entity, he said the building might have been saved if had it been stabilized early on when it was first identified as a threatened structure worth saving.
Since the early 1980s, the two-story Spanish Colonial Revival building, built in the 1920s and topped with a handsome terracotta tile roof, had been neglected by its owner, the Charleston County School District, which tried but failed to get a grant to restore it, Mr. King said. The building languished for years, he said, and at one point was completely grown over by vines, which held in humidity and weakened the timbers and unreinforced masonry walls.
Then, the building came into the hands of a private owner as part of a three-way deal involving the city and the Old Trolley Barn on Meeting Street, which was restored and became the new home of the American College of the Building Arts.
Meanwhile, the private owners were stymied in one way or another in their efforts to stabilize and restore the building. And the Preservation Society tried but failed to get the state to classify it as a historic structure to secure tax credits that would have made it easier to renovate.
Mr. King said one of the lessons to be learned is that “we can’t give up the good for the great,” meaning that the old school building was essentially lost, though unwittingly, in the larger process of restoring and saving the Old Trolley Barn, a tremendously worthwhile project in its own right. Time is an enemy, and therefore so is waiting to take action.
Around the same time as the collapse, downtown lost other historic buildings that might have been saved, like the boarded-up 19th century Charleston single house at Spring and Sires streets that went up in flames during Hurricane Matthew and the architecturally significant circa-1850 home at Gadsden and Beaufain streets that partly collapsed due to flood and fire damage.
After the school building collapse — luckily no one was injured, only a few vehicles damaged — the debris was cleared away and the remaining walls were shored up. Now, 2½ years later, time is calling on 11½ St. Philip St. once again, this time with a demolition permit.
Let’s not allow another historic building to crumble due to a failure of process.