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The Old and Historic Charleston District

The Old and Historic Charleston District

The Old and Historic Charleston District was the first historic district protected by local legislation in the United States and inspired legal protection of historic sites in New York City.

Location: Charleston, South Carolina  |  Google Maps
People: Susan Pringle Frost, Francis KeallyGeoffrey Platt, William Hamilton Russell, Thomas P. Stoney, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., Albert S. Bard
Organizations: Board of Architectural Review, Fine Arts Federation, Greenwich Village Association, Morris Knowles, Municipal Art Society, National Society of Colonial Dames in South Carolina, Society for the Preservation of Old Buildings, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Places: Greenwich Village, Powder Magazine, Rhinelander Houses, Washington Square
Above: South Battery in Charleston, South Carolina, 1865; Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Old and Historic Charleston District was the first historic district protected by local legislation, functioning as a beacon for other cities seeking to protect their historic structures. Charleston was founded in 1670 as Charles Town, named after King Charles II. It was one of the richest colonies, and dependent on African slave labor and trade.1 The town’s location on the Eastern Coast facilitated its emergence as a major port city; Charlestonian merchants traded rice, indigo, and human capital.2

By the mid 1800s Charleston began losing its power as a major port city, and was unable to recover economically from the Civil War.3 The economic downturn continued into the early 1900s, which inadvertently protected many of Charleston’s historic gems because it impeded new development. Several factors led to the early development of a historic preservation movement in Charleston. On a philosophical level Charleston experienced a cultural renaissance, as artists and writers depicted the town’s charm of antiquity and crumbling historic architecture. In combination with this attitude was the association of familial ties to the older architecture in the city.4 Thus, the town’s past was “vital to the city’s identity.”5

Nascent efforts to preserve historic landmarks corresponded to the growing American Patriotism movement of the late 1800s. This movement inspired the preservation of buildings associated with the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. In 1902, the National Society of Colonial Dames in South Carolina purchased the Powder Magazine, a Colonial building constructed in the 1700s to store gunpowder to prevent it from being destroyed.6 They later converted the building into a museum. Unfortunately, preserving historic buildings by merely purchasing them became a financial burden as most not-for-profit organizations could barely afford the structures, much less converting them into museums. In addition, early preservationists began losing historic buildings because of demolition and new development. In the 1920s, Standard Oil Company began demolishing residential buildings in downtown Charleston in order to build gas stations, repair shops, and gas pumps.7 Another factor that contributed to the physical loss of Charleston’s historic charm was the dismemberment of old town houses by property owners attempting to sell the architectural components to traveling art collectors.8

Susan Pringle Frost, a women’s rights activist and real estate agent, founded the Society for the Preservation of Old Buildings in 1920. Her influence on the preservation movement corresponded with a new approach to preservation. In order to protect historic buildings, she began purchasing them in the low-income areas of Charleston, for the purpose of rehabilitating and reselling them. More importantly, Frost also sought to pass a legislative ordinance that would prevent the removal of architectural elements on historic buildings; however, Mayor Thomas P. Stoney rejected her proposal, arguing that it would restrict property owner’s rights.9

In April 1929, the city instituted a temporary City Planning and Zoning Commission to draft an ordinance to prevent gas stations and repair shops from being built in the downtown section of Charleston. A year later, the city council replaced the commission members with new commissioners who hired the Morris Knowles planning firm in Pittsburgh to investigate a zoning district in Charleston.10 They suggested the city place restrictions on the height and use of buildings within certain areas of the city. With the help of local historians, the planning firm conducted a historic building survey, documenting structures from the mid-1800s on the lower tip of the peninsula.11 The zoning ordinance was passed in October of 1931 – Article X of the ordinance designated a small historic district, and the creation of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) to regulate the exterior appearance of historic buildings within the district. The BAR was comprised of five representatives, one from each of the following agencies: the Real Estate Exchange, the City Planning Commission, local chapters of the AIA, the South Carolina Art Association, and the American Society of Civil Engineers.12 In an attempt to mollify property owners’ concerns, the board originally functioned as an advisory committee for the exterior elements of historic buildings that were “subject to public view from a public street or way.”13 But the BAR was unable to prevent demolition of historic buildings even within the historic district. It was not until 1966 that the BAR would be granted jurisdiction over the potential destruction of historic structures.14

Although the Board was impeded by several restrictions, it was the first time historic preservation implemented the idea that a group of historic buildings together as a whole was more significant than individual landmarks.15 Furthermore, the district continued to function for residential purposes whereas before the only means for protecting historic landmarks was to convert them into museums. The significance of this historic district resonates as the first time legislative ordinances were used to protect historic structures. Soon after, Charleston became a paragon for other American cities seeking to obtain zoning ordinances to preserve their historic resources.16

1902: The National Society of Colonial Dames in South Carolina performs one of the first actions of historic preservation in Charleston, South Carolina, when they purchase the Powder Magazine to prevent it from being destroyed. They later convert the building into a museum.

1920s: The Standard Oil Company begins demolishing residential buildings in downtown Charleston in order to build gas stations, repair shops, and gas pumps

1920: Susan Pringle Frost founds the Society for the Preservation of Old Buildings

April 1929: The City of Charleston institutes a temporary City Planning and Zoning Commission to draft an ordinance to prevent gas stations and repair shops from being built in the downtown section of Charleston

1930: The City Council of Charleston hire the Morris Knowles planning firm to investigate a zoning district in Charleston

October 1931: The new zoning ordinance is passed in Charleston, and Article X of this ordinance designates a small historic district and creates of the Board of Architectural Review to regulate the exterior appearance of historic buildings within the district

1950: The Municipal Art Society creates a committee to research how other cities obtained legislative protection in an effort to preserve Greenwich Village in New York City

1956: The Bard Act is passed, giving local municipalities enabling legislation to pass laws that regulate the aesthetics of New York City

June 19, 1961: Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. announces the creation of a mayoral study committee to review New York City architecture worthy of protection

April 23, 1965: The New York City Landmarks Law is signed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.

1966: The Board of Architectural Review in Charleston is granted jurisdiction over the potential destruction of historic structures

 

The Charleston preservation movement had an indelible impact on other cities struggling to protect their historic structures. The success of the Old and Historic Charleston District ordinance instilled confidence in other preservation groups across the country. In New York City, early efforts for preservation began in the 1890s in order to protect buildings associated with important historical figures.17 Analogous to Charleston, the real impetus for preservation campaigns were spurred by the demolition of New York City’s most treasured landmarks.

The story of New York City’s tireless struggle to obtain the legal right to preserve these landmarks takes root in early beginnings of aesthetic regulation of the City. This was spurred by the City Beautiful Movement, which created the idea that cities could be planned and beautified for its inhabitants.

Albert S. Bard spearheaded a campaign to pass legislation that regulated billboard advertisements. These early efforts to obtain the legal right to regulate aesthetics would eventually filter into the historic preservation movement. A shrewd lawyer with an affinity for the arts, Bard began researching how other cities had obtained zoning ordinances to protect historic districts. In 1946, he was in close contact with city officials in New Orleans, which was the second city to obtain a legal district in 1937.18 Meanwhile, Greenwich Village activists had been in close contact with New Orleans city officials after the recent loss of the Rhinelander Houses on Washington Square Park.19 The demolition of the Rhinelander Houses for a modern apartment building also galvanized various art organizations including the Municipal Art Society (MAS). In 1950, the Municipal Art Society created a committee headed by William Hamilton Russell, to research how other cities obtained legislative protection. Francis Keally, president of MAS in 1950, used Charleston as a model. At a meeting before the Greenwich Village Association, Keally announced that New York City needed its own legislation and cited the success of Charleston and the economic gains the ordinance later facilitated.20

Subsequently, Albert S. Bard requested copies of ordinance codes from Charleston, New Orleans, Alexandria and Williamsburg in Virginia, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.21 In the case of Charleston, the state of South Carolina had allowed municipalities to pass local zoning ordinances.22 Bard realized the key to pass a law in New York City was to get the State to pass legislation allowing local cities to pass local ordinances. The Supreme Court case Berman v. Parker gave Bard the confidence that his bill proposal could be passed. The ruling had demonstrated that "police powers" - the power of the state to protect the public - could be extended to the regulation of aesthetics because it promoted the health and well-being of the public, outweighing private rights.23

The preservation movement gained momentum when the Bard Act was passed in 1956 because it gave local municipalities enabling legislation to pass laws that regulate the aesthetics of the city. Historic buildings were seen as enhancing city blocks and promoting a charming feel to neighborhoods. On June 19, 1961 Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. announced the creation of a mayoral study committee to review New York City architecture worthy of protection.24 The committee’s goal was to draft legislation that would protect historic buildings. Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. appointed 13 members to the committee, with Geoffrey Platt as its chairman. The committee was comprised of an architect, lawyer, planner, realtor, and banker, and was to work in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society and the Fine Arts Federation in order to draft legislation to protect historic structures. The study committee would eventually become the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. This committee began researching other cities that had already passed local ordinances to protect historic districts.25 It would take four years until the New York City Landmarks Law was signed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. on April 23, 1965. The law that was passed is a testament to the success of the preservation movement in New York City. The New York City Landmarks Law in many ways takes root in the early success of the Old and Historic Charleston District ordinance.

  • The Margaretta Childs Archive contains information about historic buildings in Charleston, in addition to information pertaining to the preservation movement in Charleston, South Carolina.

    The Margaretta Childs Archive
    40 East Bay Street
    Charleston, SC 29401
    Tel: (843) 724-8490
    Email: [email protected]
  1. 
Stephanie E. Yuhl, A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
  2. 
Ibid.
  3. 
Ibid.
  4. 
Robert Weyeneth, Historic Preservation for a Living City: Historic Charleston Foundation 1947 – 1997 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000).
  5. 
Stephanie E. Yuhl, A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), page 6.
  6. 
Robert Weyeneth, Historic Preservation for a Living City: Historic Charleston Foundation 1947 – 1997 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000).
  7. 
Ibid.
  8. 
Ibid.
  9. 
Ibid.
  10. 
Ibid.
  11. 
Ibid.
  12. 
Ibid.
  13. 
Ibid, page 18.
  14. 
Ibid.
  15. 
Diane Lea, “America’s Preservation Ethos: A Tribute to Enduring Ideals,” in Robert E. Stipe, ed., A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
  16. 
Ibid.
  17. 
Randall Mason, “Historic Preservation, Public Memory, and the Making of New York City,” in Max Page and Randall Mason, eds., Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2004).
  18. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 102.
  19. 
Ibid, page 102.
  20. 
Staff, “Law Urged to Save Landmarks of City,” The New York Times, 8 March 1950.
  21. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 108.
  22. 
Robert Weyeneth, Historic Preservation for a Living City: Historic Charleston Foundation 1947 – 1997 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000).
  23. 
Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26 (U.S. Supreme Court, 1954).
  24. 
Staff, “Mayor Appoints 13 To Help Preserve Historic Buildings,” The New York Times, 12 July 1961.
  25. Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), pages 270 and 279.