Master Preservationist Program-Day Six. Preservation Law, Upper King St and a Challenge for Local Architects

Little did I know that two of the buildings that were part of my daily life in New York, would have such wide-reaching influence in preservation law in Charleston.  I also did not know that Upper King St has many buildings designed by one of Charleston’s most pre-eminent architects.  And ANOTHER thing I did not know was that no one has ever proposed something other than demolition for the former Charleston Library.  Humph…

So now I do know, and now so shall you.  In Day 6 of our Master Preservationist Program, our topic was Preservation Law – how it came to be, what influences it and current issues we are facing in Charleston.  I won’t spend too much time on it, as our walk in the commercial district of Upper King St was fascinating to me, but a little background is in order.

In 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act was signed into bill by President Lyndon B. Johnson with the intent of preserving historical and archeological sites in America. However, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that legal justification for historic preservation ordinances came into effect.  The most important legal precedent is the landmark 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Penn Central V. City of New York.  Now for those of you who have lived (or live) in NYC, you know that at one point Penn Station was an architectural marvel, until it was destroyed in the 1960s to be replaced by Madison Square Garden and the Penn Station we see today in all its hideous utility.

Thus, when Penn Central, the owners of Grand Central Terminal, a stunning Beaux Arts building created in the first decade of the 20th Century, approached NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission about building a 55-story structure on top of it – New Yorkers revolted.  With the NY State Supreme Court ruling in favor of Penn Central, a broad public campaign was needed to stop them in their tracks.  Led by Jacqueline Onassis herself, the Committee to Save Grand Central was formed, taking the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was finally overturned.

This landmark decision formed the legal basis for legislatures to grant cities the right to establish controls to which the owners of historic properties would be subject.  And if you know law, precedent is everything.

Here in Charleston we face legal issues related to preservation on a constant basis.  What types of buildings should be legally protected?  Do we consider age, architecture, architect, cultural context, area context, historic significance??  All of the above.  So take a walk down Upper King Street with me and I’ll introduce you to one of Charleston’s most important mid-century architects and the protracted fights happening right in the center of everything.

The prolific architect is Augustus Constantine (what a name!)  who designed countless buildings in Charleston in the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles with International influence.  Now I know we are all used to much older buildings, and charming 200-year old style, but one cannot deny that what he designed has an everlasting impact on the streetscape of charleston.  I’m a huge fan.

The American Theater

The American Theater, an icon of Upper King St, and featured in the movie The Notebook, was built in 1942.  Constantine also built two other theaters in Charleston, one of which was demolished by the College of Charleston in 2004 to make way for their Business Building.

Chase Furniture Building c. 1946

Now housing the Charleston School of Law, this one is my current favorite of Constantine’s.

And here’s another…

299 King St

Augustus Constantine built up quite the portfolio in Charleston, including designing countless schools, redesigning the building in what now houses the restaurant Rue de Jean, a Marion Square bandstand (destroyed in 2000), and much much more.  Whether you like his style or not, HE as an architect, is historically significant in the fabric of Charleston.  If you want to read more about him, the best resource is a Master’s thesis written by Lissa D’Aquisto Felzer called Avoiding the theme park: a study of the architecture of Augustus Edison Constantine, and the need for preservation policy reform in Charleston, SC for the 21st Century. (Which reminds me of a post I wrote called Charleston is not Disneyworld.)  But I digress….

Which brings me to my next building. The Charleston County Library.

At the center of heated debate lies the former Charleston County Library at 404 King St, built in 1961 after the west wing of the Old Citadel (now an Embassy Suites hotel) was demolished to put this in place.  Built by architects Cummings & McCrady, it was designed to be the FIRST desegregated library in Charleston, a significant turning point in the Civil Rights movement.  Obviously its architecture met with much controversy, but apparently it was the best of three designs.

Old Charleston County Library

The Library has been closed since 1998 and left to deteriorate.  And then along comes Library Associates LLC, who proposed to build an 8-story hotel in its place.  Initially the height variance was granted, until people rose up and protested on the basis that it would dwarf the surrounding historic structures.

Proposed Design

We are still waiting on the verdict.

It’s interesting to note that in a September 2010 Post & Courier editorial, the writer states “It’s unlikely that many people want the derelict former Charleston County Library building to stay at 404 King Street. And it appears that most do not object to a hotel taking its place.”

Well.  I DO.

Not only do I think we don’t need yet another hotel in Charleston (and I am sure most hoteliers would agree with me), but also I am tired of the same old ‘neoclassical’ architecture used for new buildings.  Do we really need another brick facade with off-white accents?  How about recognizing that mid-century architecture is significant in its own right?  If we destroyed this building, would we end up following the path of regret that they did at Penn Station?  How about instead rising to the challenge of using the existing structure to create something magnificent?  Something new that Charleston hasn’t seen or felt before?  Something that perhaps could include a tribute to the Civil Rights movement??

Amazingly enough, this has not yet been considered for this structure.

So this is my challenge to our local architects and designers. Create something out of nothing.  Submit a design to the Post and Courier, the BAR, the Preservation Society – whomever will look at it.

To kick it off for you by risking my own embarrassment, I’ll go public with a really bad sketch that I drew, standing there, inspired. (Pardon the crab look-alikes – those are supposed to be tables.)  It adds to the roof, creating an additional structure that cannot be seen from the street below, incorporates a roof garden, event space, eating space and sculpture garden overlooking Marion Square.  At street level the footprint is extended to include park-side dining ON Marion Square, much like you find at Bryant Park in NYC. The use of additional glass and mirrored surfaces will not only reflect our Carolina blue sky, palmetto trees and our historic buildings nearby, but will also let us get a glimpse of the Man in the Mirror – and that’s not a bad idea….

Alas, what could this be??

Now I know ya’ll can do better than that. 🙂

To close out, I want to leave you with a little something something that Evan Thompson showed us…

contemplating the message

I love it when people find life and passion amidst decay.

Read Master Preservationist Program-Day Five. Illuminating the Interiors.

6 Responses to “Master Preservationist Program-Day Six. Preservation Law, Upper King St and a Challenge for Local Architects

  • Ryan Jackson
    13 years ago

    Kristin, I could not agree more with your sentiments regarding the old library building. This is exactly the type of thing that people will regret losing in the decades to come when styles evolve & fashions change. The last thing Charleston needs is another hotel/neoclassical building, and your rough sketch shows the wonderful possibilities of that space (I especially love the outdoor tables – we need more of those!). I hope people will see this and re-examine what makes our city beautiful and unique.

    • Thanks Ryan! It would be interesting to see how many people in Charleston agree with our approach. Maybe Robert Behre could do a write-up and a survey? 🙂

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