Preservation in Charleston

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Charleston’s Four-Mile House, site of alleged murders circa 1812. (Ronald Ramsey)

Should historic preservation be a quest for beauty or a quest for knowledge?

That was the question at issue on Saturday in Charleston., S.C. Both are valid goals but I argued that beauty should be top priority. The panel, “Unfolding Perspectives in Preservation,” was sponsored by the College of Charleston’s Historic Preservation and Community Planning program along with the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. I was invited to join the fun by my old friend Nathaniel Walker, a Brown doctoral graduate now assistant professor at the college and moderator of the panel, which he organized along with his colleague Grant Gilmore. Walker’s essay “Architecture and Food” will be fondly recalled by readers of this blog.

Impaneled with three academics at odds with my priorities, I gave it my best on behalf of beauty. My interlocutors argued for saving buildings on behalf of narratives that trace the aesthetic, historical, technological and moral roles of architecture as the primary rationale for preserving buildings and other cultural artifacts, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway.

Here is a summary of my argument that I sent to help Nathan introduce me to the audience, though he didn’t actually read it aloud:

David believes that modern architecture is unattractive, uncivil, unprincipled, unsound, unsustainable and hence unsupported by the large majority of the public. This deep skepticism shapes his view of historic preservation, which has lost its way. Preservation organizations need to get back to basics or risk losing relevance – and membership. They must refocus more on the threat to civic beauty that half a century ago changed preservation from a hobby to a mass movement. In cities and towns where most historic buildings have already been preserved, preservationists must concentrate on saving their settings by opposing unsympathetic interventions in historic districts and promoting new architecture that strengthens the beauty of those districts and serves as a model for the rest of the city.

Preservation is not so much about the past as about how we move into the future.

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View from the stage at Randolph Hall. (DB photo)

The give and take among the panel was polite, as you might expect of an event in the Holy City (a longstanding nickname). I got a lot of gentle ribbing about fluctuating perceptions of beauty from Robin B. Williams, of the Savannah College of Art and Design (the RISD of the South). He is the nation’s leading expert on historic pavements and their preservation, upon which subject I found much more common ground than on the subject of the nature of beauty. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder’s perception of beauty is a construct of many less subjective factors, including much recent scientific research on how neurobiology pushes the human brain to prefer traditional over modern architecture – that is, beauty over what I call, for lack of a better term, ugliness. (I have written about that often in this blog.)

Whitney Powers is a local architect of the modernist persuasion, involved with local design authorities and community boards. She is president of Studio A Architecture. According to the event description, she “specializ[es] in the adaptation of both old buildings and new design philosophies to serve contemporary Charleston.” However little of the former may be evident in her work, so far as I could tell, she gave, in this discussion, as good as she got, arguing that local community needs outweigh beauty in such service.

Ray Huff, the star of the panel, is head of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston and an internationally celebrated modernist at Huff+Goodin Architects. He was my chief antagonist, arguing that the classical detailing and ornament that I view as beautiful reminds blacks around the nation (and elsewhere) of slavery. He said he recalls reading on my blog that I oppose the proposed modernist design  of the slavery museum to be built in Charleston. Reluctant to be “shamed,” I reasserted my opposition to the design. I argued that minority populations do not associate classical motifs with slavery. They certainly do associate the plantation houses of slave owners with slavery, but it cannot be that the evil that happened in a particular building typology may be logically blamed on the broader classical style of architecture. Yet that is the argument made with considerable wit, eloquence and a wry smile by Ray Huff, but also many others with less reason than he has to take offense at new classical and traditional buildings.

Are minorities actually reminded of slavery by dentil moldings, roof cornices, rows of columns with Corinthian capitals and that sort of thing? Some are, but most? I kinda doubt it, really. Huff and many others make this argument, and it is not without a degree of plausibility. But I believe that they see the connection more vividly than most people because they study the language of buildings, such as it may be. When the monument to Martin Luther King Jr. was built, however, many blacks applauded but others asked why Lincoln and Jefferson deserved temples but not King. This debate will continue long after Ray, Whitney, Robin and I stepped off the stage at Randolph Hall.

The panel coincided with an art exhibit, “Ahead of the Wrecking Ball,” also at Randolph Hall, by the Halsey Institute of the work of Ronald Ramsey, a native Charlestonian and artistic savant – “a one-man preservation army” – who over decades has meticulously drawn old houses slated for demolition in Charleston. One of these, shown atop this post, is the so-called Four-Mile House, built in 1783 and razed in 1969. “Better Known as Murder & Trap House” is inscribed by Ramsey under the title of his illustration. In about 1812, the tavern’s owner and his wife allegedly killed several travelers who, at different times, had stayed there and then disappeared. They were convicted on one charge of murder and executed.

“Did the Four-Mile House kill those people?” I asked the audience. “No! Other people killed those people.” Ditto slavery. Houses do not own slaves. People do. Maybe that is a simple-minded argument, but that does not make it illogical. Slavery may taint specific buildings that existed before, during and after slavery (including Jim Crow), but that does not mean traditional architecture as a class is therefore tainted. Go down that road and you can argue against erecting a new building of any style, including modernism.

An effort was made to suggest that Ramsey, in his work, valued the old buildings fated to be torn down no more highly than the modernist ones arising in their place. Not likely. Ramsey had no schooling in design, so his natural instinct for beauty was not bowdlerized by the blue-noses of higher architectural education like that of so many proponents of modernism.

I suppose my favorite moment on the panel came as the discussion addressed what to do with midcentury modern buildings, such as those known, for some curious reason, as “Brutalist.” The event literature referred to this as “the awkward topic of modernist structures that have failed to earn public affection.” We were discussing an old bank drive-thru. I pulled out my Nikon camera, held it up and declared that photography was a neat solution to the question of whether to save buildings that have few admirers. They can be razed and replaced by (one hopes) nicer buildings, yet survive as illustrations in books, available to future generations as long as libraries (and the Web) exist. The crowd laughed, but I can’t say I believe many agreed. The feeling, as one audience member said, was that it would not be the same. Still, we cannot preserve everything that is fifty years old – the current requirement. Priorities must be set and beauty, it seems to me, is first, at least, among equals – for the sake of a public already largely turned off by its built environment.

Preservationists ask why we preserve because many preservationists, and especially those with jobs in preservation, have forgotten why we preserve. But it is not rocket science. We preserve because we love and respect beauty above all. Preservation was a hobby before 1950, dedicated to saving actual historic structures (“George Washington slept here”) over decades and even centuries when people tended to believe that a demolished building would naturally be replaced by a better building. When people started to believe, increasingly, after 1950 that a demolished building might well be replaced by something worse, preservation was swiftly transformed from a hobby into a mass movement. That’s the essential truth about preservation. And it is not difficult to understand why we preserve if we understand that truth.

Whether that truth is what emerged at the College of Charleston on Saturday afternoon, I have no idea. Either way, the four of us had a helluva good time, and I happily join my fellow panelists in thanking our hosts for inviting us to discuss an issue that is so close to the heart of Charlestonians.

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The panel was held inside Randolph Hall, at the College of Charleston. (Photo by David Brussat.)

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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6 Responses to Preservation in Charleston

  1. Wanda Mouzon says:

    Excellent blog! And thank you David for standing your ground and making your point! Beauty DOES matter! As Steve Mouzon puts it, “beauty” is what people love most and if it can’t be loved, it won’t last. Every place is historically built based on climate, culture and conditions of the area, therefore it is what becomes most dear to those that live there. It is important that architecture continue to respect these 3 “C’s” however. Imported “beauty” can be as erroneous as “ugly” when it simply does not reflect the place!

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    • Agreed, Wanda. Of course, Steve is the primary source of my thoughts on love, beauty and architecture. I might quibble with you on one thing – “as erroneous”? Perhaps. It depends. I suppose I’d rather suffer from imported beauty than imported ugliness under most circumstances. But I take your point and embrace its validity.

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  2. Thank you for doing what you do, David, and for fighting the good fight for beauty. “Beauty in the eye of the beholder” is complete nonsense, and architects like Ray Huff and the rest of the pseudo-intellectual modernist cult who don’t stand for beauty are in complete breach of their duty to society. Beauty is a cornerstone of what architecture has always been about, and it boggles the mind that it has been cast away in the past 100 years. Buildings which are not beautiful can hardly be called architecture, merely construction.

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    • 100 percent in agreement, Robert. If the public were aware of the shaky (to be kind) basis for architecture as it is mostly practiced today, they would be storming the ramparts of the AIA with pitchforks. I wonder how much membership preservation societies have lost over the years because preservation staff, and often board members, don’t have the foggiest idea what preservation should be about. They are in bed with the modernists, and they should be called out on it at every opportunity.

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  3. I don’t think that traditional architecture is bad just because bad things were done in it. After all, lots of evil happens in modernism.

    However, minorities have every right to reject styles particular to the majority. Of course the best answer might be the most radical: new traditional styles consciously designed by ethnic groups to celebrate their own heritages. Something like that happened in some Chinatowns. Sometimes it was hokey, but sometimes it worked.

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    • I agree, Bruce. Everyone has a right to reject what they do not like, but they don’t have a right to eliminate something the helps everyone just because they don’t undertand it, or how it helps them in particular. But you are correct about that radical idea of yours, and it is a large part of the new program of “progressive classicism” that’s about to be instituted at the College of Charleston.

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