After spending the summer among the gray and white houses on Nantucket, visiting Charleston, South Carolina, last month was like watching a color TV for the first time.
My sister moved to that area three years, and I’ve visited the city six times since. It never gets old (no pun intended). I can’t imagine a larger collection of historic architecture and craftsmanship in the U.S. You almost feel like you’re in a giant museum when you walk the streets south of Broad because everything is so perfectly restored.
But Charleston wasn’t always a booming, picturesque city. From the 1840s until almost a hundred years later it was mired in an economic slump hammered home by the Civil War. Many of the homes that now fetch millions were divided into tenements for the low income. Tradd Street was known for its brothels. In the 1920s, the Charleston Renaissance brought hordes of collectors to the city to buy up architectural details. Entire rooms were shipped out of the city and reassembled in wealthy Northerners’ homes. Also, old buildings were being knocked down to make way for gas stations as the automobile gained in popularity.
Women of old-guard families united to prevent further destruction to the city of their ancestors and sought to return Charleston to its antebellum appearance. In other words, Stephanie E. Yuhl says in “A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston,” they wanted to push out the blacks living among them. She tells the story of a black neighborhood near downtown razed to make way for low-income housing for whites.
The turning point in the historic preservation movement was the creation of the first historic district in the U.S. in 1931. This gave the city’s architectural review board say over changes to the oldest structures in the district. Preservation efforts spread up the peninsula, again pushing out low-income residents in the process. It’s well chronicled in Robert Weyeneth’s “Historic Preservation for a Living City: Historic Charleston Foundation, 1947-1997.”
The Charleston of today sure is beautiful. But it’s a shame what had to be done to get it that way.