The small brick building at 1 Charlotte St. that owner SCE&G wants to tear down is no longer in use, but its role in Charleston’s historic area is still important. The Board of Architectural Review should refuse to allow its demolition if SCE&G pursues this course of action.
Built in 1845 as part of the Gas Plant’s work of processing coal into gas for street lamps and heat, the building is listed as Category 3 for its historic significance. That means it isn’t a Category 1 or 2 Wentworth Mansion or St. Michael’s Church, but it is worthy of note and definitely worthy of saving.
SCE&G submitted its request for demolition for the BAR to consider on Feb. 14. It was withdrawn before the meeting began because a key member of the SCE&G team was unable to appear. That is just as well. City Architect Dennis Dowd said city staff is opposed to SCE&G’s request for demolition. The BAR can disagree, but Mr. Dowd says that would be unlikely.
The plan was proposed after a complaint was filed with the Livability Court because a few bricks fell a couple of months ago, he says. The court dealt with the problem, and the threat to public safety has been addressed. And property owners should not be rewarded for allowing a building to fall into disrepair by neglect.
That is only one of several reasons the building should be preserved. Its brick detailing is attractive and relates to the larger brick building to its east. Its roof is missing, but its windows are well protected by handsome shutters. And SCE&G itself must have recognized its historic merit. In 1993 the Preservation Society of Charleston deemed the owner’s preservation efforts deserving of a Carolopolis Award, which recognizes excellence in such projects. The seal is attached proudly to its facade.
Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston that chooses properties to receive Carolopolis Awards, says Charleston has a limited number of urban industrial structures. One Charlotte Street is one of them, and it should be preserved for that reason in addition to its noble architecture. Perhaps SCE&G’s new parent, Dominion, which now owns the building, needs to be informed about Charleston’s commitment to historic preservation.
The historic areas of Charleston are appealing and important because of specific buildings, but also because of the larger landscape. The gas plant building, and its companion building to the east, are a reminder of the years before the city’s lights were powered by electricity. The contrast is compelling, as their brick-and-mortar walls are now in the shadow of a sprawling electrical substation made of steel and cables.
The city has wisely held the line on saving countless other buildings from the wrecking ball, sometimes when those buildings pose costly headaches for money-motivated developers eager to plant something new. Those projects have benefited in the long run. Instead of building yet another vanilla building that could just as well be in Tuscon, architects have incorporated into their designs historic structures the city insisted be saved. Many will still say there is too much development on the peninsula, but even those critics would likely agree that a building that honors its neighborhood, past and present, is superior to one that doesn’t attempt to do so.
Similarly, the old Gas Plant buildings are a block from residences and offices. Their presence softens the sharp visual divide between steel towers and wooden porches. It helps explain why those houses are where they are.
As of Friday, SCE&G’s application had not reappeared on the BAR’s agenda. City staff says it is unclear if that will happen. It would be a sign of respect for the people of Charleston for SCE&G to withdraw its request altogether. The buildings at 1 Charlotte St. have stood strong for more than 170 years. There is no good reason to tear down one of them, and there are any number of reasons to strengthen them so they can continue to stand strong.