Southern Rivals Struggle to Balance Historic Preservation and Modern Architecture

Charleston’s Rainbow Row, a commercial center from the Colonial period until the early 20th century (Photo by Melizabethi123)

Many older U.S. cities struggle with how to preserve history and foster forward momentum at the same time. Sometimes tearing down the old to make way for the new wins out. Some cities are getting innovative when it comes to new development and the preservation of landmark buildings.

CBS Sunday Morning recently took a look at two Southern cities trying to strike a balance between remembering their roots and promoting progress. Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, are just 100 miles apart and have long been regional rivals. Retired history professor John Duncan, who is from Charleston but has lived in Savannah for over 50 years, told CBS that many in Savannah are happy keeping the history alive by saying “no” to change. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, however, has a different attitude.

“A historic city should be a living place,” Riley told CBS. “Because if you don’t have that, then it’s a former something. A former once-great city that now is pretty to see.”

Riley has taken a strong stance on Charleston’s progress, according to CBS:

“You know, it’s like there is this beautiful painting that has been painted and you have an opportunity to paint something within that beautiful painting,” said Riley. “You’ve got to be careful that in what you paint there, you don’t detract from the overall context of what has been created.”

It’s up to Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review to approve new construction. Sometimes the mayor himself gets involved, as he did with the architect of a proposed parking garage.

“I said I want a building that doesn’t look like a parking garage,” Riley recalled. “And he very nicely explained to me that’s not what you do. And I said, ‘No, that’s what we do here in Charleston. I don’t want it to look like a parking garage.’”

That garage won a Federal Design Achievement Award, but one architect tells CBS that getting approval to build in the city is forbidding.

Christian Sottile, dean of the School of Building Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design, touts his city’s holistic approach. “We actually like to use the term creative preservation,” Sottile told CBS. “Historic is looking backwards, and preservation sounds like you’re just kind of hanging on. That’s not very hopeful. Where ‘creative preservation’ is making and saving. It’s both.”

The college has saved and repurposed 70-plus historic sites, including a former county jail.

Jenn Stanley is a freelance journalist, essayist and independent producer living in Chicago. She has an M.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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Tags: architecturezoninghistoric preservationsavannah