Charleston has proven a leader in historic preservation in many ways, and one of its biggest contributions was this: It was among the first to emphasize preservation of all buildings in an historic area, not just the grandest or the ones owned by a famous figure. And that’s what troubled us about a recent real estate ad at the northeast corner of Wentworth Street and Ashley Avenue.
The online ad for the 80 Ashley Ave. property, a long-closed gas station, touted the property as a vacant residential lot, essentially implying that anyone buying the lot could tear down its existing brick service station with no problem. That’s in fact not the case: Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review would have to sign off on it, and that would be far from a slam dunk.
The ad has since been changed to say “incorporating the present structure, this property could be a great residence.” There’s no question reusing the existing structure as a residence (or even as a convenience store or small cafe) would be challenging, but that’s what good architects and design professionals are here for: figuring out such challenges.
The Board of Architectural Review could conceivably allow the building’s demolition. It approved the demolition of a smaller gas station at King and Tradd several years ago, but that was done over the objections of preservationists.
And any such request would arrive at a time when the city has pledged a renewed focus on tackling the problem of demolition by neglect. While the existing building surely has structural challenges, the responsibility for addressing those lie with the current and previous owners, not with the city or the neighborhood, both of which have been lessened by the building’s abandoned state and would be enriched by its preservation.
It might seem odd for a city to value historic preservation enough that it strives to save old gas and service stations, but Charleston already has a half-dozen examples at least, from Fuel restaurant to the Coastal Conservation League’s new 131 Spring St. office to the Historic Charleston Foundation’s store at Meeting and Chalmers streets to Rutledge Cab Co. to Leon’s restaurant (named after a former car repair business) to Xia Bao Biscuit and so on. But saving these buildings tells a chapter of Charleston’s history, and just because it didn’t have anything to do with the founding of the United States or the Civil War doesn’t mean it’s worth forgetting.
These sorts of modest buildings, along with the larger, grander ones, stir the memories of those who live here, even when it’s clear that these buildings have seen better days. In a city changing as rapidly as Charleston is, those memories should count for something.