Another battle in Charleston

Proposed mixed use project on edge of Charleston's downtown historic district. (charlestoncitypaper.com)

Proposed mixed-use project on edge of Charleston’s downtown historic district. (charlestoncitypaper.com)

A developer in Charleston proposes to rip down an ugly modernist tower of 14 stories, built in 1949, and replace it with three mostly four-story buildings that reflect the city’s historic architecture. You’d think preservationists there would favor that. Instead, they’ve raised objections because while the Sgt. Jasper Tower is abandoned and empty, its replacement would have residents, and residents would have cars, and cars mean traffic and … etc., etc.

Sergeant Jasper Tower. (postandcourier.com)

Sergeant Jasper Tower. (postandcourier.com)

Good grief! The rendering above speaks for itself. So does the photo to the left. Does the Preservation Society of Charleston know what it is about?

Of course renderings can be deceptive, and the one above shows no hint of the portion of the project that is seven stories, set back from the street façade of one of three four-story buildings designed by Glenn Keyes Architects. And there’s no telling whether the actual work will reflect the elegance of the illustration. This is a key issue. In Providence, a design for grad-student apartments near Brown University that evolved toward great virtuosity under local pressure seems now to have been constructed with less of the beauty that seemed to inhabit the drawing by Union Studio Architects.

But replacing the existing Jasper Tower with something like what a local group called The Beach Company has proposed should be the chief goal of preservationists in Charleston, not preserving the exclusivity of a wealthy neighborhood. Density and parking concerns are very important, but they still are secondary in a situation like this. Having more people of a wider range of income, many of whom will work nearby, may even reduce the cars and traffic, since many of the new residents probably drive into the area now. The project also contains a possible 24-hour grocery store, which will help the entire neighborhood.

The only thing that would be more depressing than citizens trying to thwart such a lovely proposal because of concerns over traffic congestion would be for citizens to demand that the Sgt. Jasper Tower be preserved because of its ugly midcentury modernism. It is, after all, “historic” by preservationist standards. I hope this contingent of cranks remains mum!

The job of Charleston’s preservationists should be to help citizens maintain enough pressure on the developer to ensure that the project lives up to the rendering, which is gorgeous. And not just to the rendering but to the spirit of beauty that the rendering seems eager to convey. Craftsmanship and sensitive fabrication are key to the quality of the result.

Getting rid of abominations like the Jasper Tower is precisely job one for preservationists. It’s chief rival for that priority is to ensure that new development reflects and strengthens the historical fabric. The refusal of preservation authorities across the country to recognize this is one reason preservation organizations have trouble maintaining membership levels these days.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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