Incompatible design a peril to Historic District’s essence

The Charleston peninsula from the air. (Leroy Burnell/File)

Charleston’s architectural history is under threat 95 years after the Preservation Society of Charleston helped launch the preservation movement across America.

And it’s likely to get worse.

Charleston’s history has been preserved by a century of economic challenges that saved old houses and buildings from demolition and by visionary preservationists who fought to protect them. That preservation movement sparked Charleston’s fame and became a magnet for growth.

Fortunately, early preservationists established the Board of Architectural Review to protect historic structures and neighborhoods. Unfortunately, that defense is crumbling.

The Old and Historic District of Charleston, the nation’s premier historic district, attracts five million tourists annually. People come to immerse themselves in Charleston’s historic ambiance — entire streetscapes of small-scale homes and buildings that allow everyone to pause and imagine living here in 1775 or 1820. People don’t fall in love with Charleston because of an old building or two. They’re enveloped by Charleston’s timeless historic patina.

Visitors certainly don’t come here to be jarred by glimpses of modernist architecture they can see anywhere else in America.

Sadly, the BAR has approved some incongruous additions and infill buildings that dent and damage our historic ambiance. One distressing decision permitted a highly visible all-glass façade to adulterate a traditional carriage house on Murray Boulevard.

Last month the BAR endorsed an office-like metal and glass addition to a 1790s era kitchen house, using materials and a design wholly incompatible with the original house and the neighborhood. Then came authorization for a complete restyling of an old garage in the heart of the Historic District. This month, the BAR gave conceptual approval for an irregularly designed modernist house on Gadsden Street, pausing not on the discordant design or the impact on the neighborhood but merely to consider its height and the use of “fiber cement.”

We don’t own the city’s historic properties; we are their caretakers.

Centuries old, these buildings have craftsmanship and style we cannot recreate, and those who dwelled in them bequeathed a legacy Charlestonians cherish. We do not have the right to make harmful changes to the integrity of historic structures — erasing their history and character — to suit our transitory whims. Otherwise, there will simply be a lot of once-historic homes with a lot of modernist additions tacked on. Do we want our wondrous Charleston architecture to only survive in books?

Urban architect Andres Duany said that unlike other great cities, Charleston is great for only one reason: its historic small-scale architecture at its four-square-mile core. We must protect that core, he said, and use Charleston’s other 105 square miles for thoughtful modern architectural experimentation.

Although city ordinances direct the BAR to consider the “character of the surrounding area,” the “prevailing character,” and the “interests of the old and historic district,” the staff and the BAR too often disregard these requirements. The tipping point is now upon us, and the BAR must dig deep and rediscover its mission and obligations before it’s too late.

Preservation is easy until people with money want to change something. Now Charleston is facing a future with a lot more people and a lot more developers with a lot more money.

The BAR cannot acquiesce to these egregious applications or the historic district will be irreparably invaded by now-faddish rectangular metal-and-glass window walls and ill-conceived changes to historic homes that no tourist will want to see and fewer residents will care to own.

Jay Williams Jr. chairs the Charlestowne Neighborhood’s BAR & Zoning Committee and serves as a board member of the Preservation Society. The opinions expressed here are his own.