A century ago, many of Charleston’s architecturally and historically valuable houses were in terrible shape–unpainted, in need of structural repairs, perhaps incompletely repaired from the earthquake of 1886. Charleston was in bad economic condition, and had been for some time. One by one, once great and beautiful homes were being destroyed.
In 1920, what is now the Preservation Society of Charleston was formed by a small number of people concerned about saving one particular house; they succeeded. By 1931, they had persuaded the city council to create an “Old and Historic District”, and to also create a Board of Architectural Review to review repairs and modifications in this district. The number of historic buildings in this district is now over 4,800. In 1953, the Society began awarding Caropolis Awards for particularly well done preservation or restoration projects. There have been over 1,300 awarded. the individual round plaques also include the year the award was given.
In 1947 the Historic Charleston Foundation was formed for many of the same purposes as the Preservation Society. Each organization has a number of different methods to help preserve and protect, and they work together on some projects.
Still, there are houses in Charleston that need some tender loving care–maybe fairly soon.
Wanting to restore a house is one thing and doing it is another, however. It costs money–if you don’t have the money, sometimes it’s easier just to let it continue to go down and rent it out–the picture above is a pretty good example of that. There is a good market for apartments in Charleston, especially near colleges.
Restoration is neither a simple nor an inexpensive undertaking.
In the window above, there is an architectural board of review permit signed 5/27/2009. I suspect there were multiple sessions with architects and perhaps engineers, then more than one meeting with the board and its representatives, and perhaps some revisions, before this permit was issued. There is another board permit from 2/29/2012 above it. This picture was taken near the end of July last year (July 23, 2013). Work was still going on when photographed. In itself, these permits represent a lot of professionals’ time and work. And dollars.
Then, there are the other costs. Not very many building materials have gotten cheaper, and a restorer is limited in what materials, colors and patterns he can use. You probably won’t be able to go to Lowe’s and buy a replacement for your front door. Perhaps you’ll need the door, or the shutters, or some elaborate molding custom-made. $$.
Many of Charleston’s houses are wood. Painting a wood house is an expensive proposition. You can’t just grind away with a rotary sander to prep the surface (assuming you can even do a decent job with a rotary sander).
The picture above suggests a couple of things. First, a wood butcher can destroy something pretty fast. Second, you can’t hire just anybody to work for you–they need to have special talents, and it will be more than minimum wage.
Far as rotary sanders go, they are forbidden–too much risk of lead poisoning for those around because of removal of old lead paint. You need more time-consuming and expensive ways to prepare your house for painting. In case you just had a great idea, vinyl and aluminum siding won’t cut it, either. So far, we have really only talked about painters.
There are also specially skilled plasterers, plaster molding makers, finish carpenters, masons, etc., etc. When’s the last time you talked to a real, honest-to-God plasterer? Know many guys that repair slate roofs?
As you’ve probable decided, restoring an old Charleston home is not a quick process, and it will take substantial resources. Fortunately both the organizations I mentioned can help in a number of ways, from advice and help on navigating the administrative landscape, to helping find individuals or organizations able to buy the property and do the project.
And after the project is done? Nothing lasts forever. Sometimes a restored building will gradually come to need restoration again.
Fortunately, all is not lost. The picture at the top of the page, shown again here,
is of a house on Smith Street that had been restored and awarded a Carolopolis Award in the past. Obviously, it’s in trouble now.
In this particular example, the two organizations were able to help find an individual capable of buying and willing to restore the property, preventing the construction of condominiums in the front yard by another possible buyer, and securing a covenant prohibiting the division of the property.
I have heard friends and acquaintances tell about their experiences with the restoration process from both the craftsman’s and the owner’s viewpoints. I think that in Charleston we are extremely fortunate to have so many individuals willing to commit themselves to so many restorations. We are extremely fortunate to have so many highly skilled craftsmen. Without both, there would not be much to look at downtown that you couldn’t see anywhere else. I am also grateful that there are organizations of people dedicated to help these individuals and the community at large. Charleston’s a better place because of these people and organizations.
Please note that I have not asked either of the organizations mentioned or anyone else who would be more knowledgeable than myself to comment on this, so there may be errors; I would appreciate having them pointed out in the “Comments” section.