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Editorial: Preservation Society well poised for its next century

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Preservation Society at 100 (copy)

Preservation Society of Charleston executive director Kristopher King, right, and society board chair Elizabeth Cahill stand next to the new historical marker at 20 South Battery. 

From its inception inside a South Battery drawing room a century ago, the group now known as the Preservation Society of Charleston has always had a lot more passion than cents, or dollars.

As the society begins its next century — one in which Charleston will undoubtedly face continued challenges not only to its architectural legacy and historic fabric but also to its residents’ quality of life — we’re glad to see that changing in a big way.

During the past year, as its centennial approached (and largely before the pandemic arrived), the Preservation Society was able to launch its first significant capital campaign, raising $5.5 million toward its $6 million goal.

The society plans to use half the money to double its advocacy staff to six employees, some of whom will focus on newer parts of the city, such as Johns Island, West Ashley and the Cainhoy peninsula. While they have fewer old buildings, residents share many of the same livability concerns with residents downtown.

Another $1.5 million is being set aside as a “Preservation Defense Fund” for targeted public relations or possibly litigation; $1 million for technology and research on crucial issues; and $500,000 for a reserve fund.

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This is quite different from 100 years ago when the society’s original 32 members tried to raise money to buy and save the Joseph Manigault House. Those members, with the exception of Nell and Ernest Pringle, were able to contribute little financially toward that goal. They struggled mightily before others stepped in more than a decade later and ensured the house was preserved as a museum.

Today, the society’s work has reduced the threats faced by historic homes. Instead, the challenge is grappling with livability and viability, with reducing flooding and managing tourism among its top priorities.

Kristopher King, the group’s executive director, told The Post and Courier’s Emily Williams that the society’s work with new development is more demanding now, as the city’s popularity has attracted more savvy investors whose local roots are minimal, if they exist at all. “The stakes have just changed,” Mr. King said.

The society’s work in advancing local history will continue as well. But in addition to putting white wooden plaques on historic buildings, the society is creating new technological tools, such as the Charleston Justice Journey, an online map of sites related to the struggle for equality. In other words, preservation has long expanded beyond paint colors and window boxes. “We’re fighting for people who live and work here,” Mr. King says. “It’s about preservation of community, and that takes on a lot of different forms.”

The society’s founders might not be surprised to see Mr. Manigault’s home well preserved as one of the city’s fine house museums. They probably would be surprised to learn that their group is now concerned about endangered smokestacks and a proposed development on top of a landfill, none of which even existed in 1920. But once they got caught up, they likely would approve.

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