A push is underway to get World Heritage designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for an array of religious, civic, and community buildings on the Charleston peninsula.
Since 1972, UNESCO has been designating sites of cultural and natural importance as World Heritage Sites. The organization currently lists just over 1,000 sites in various states of danger due to development and natural hazards, including several national parks in the United States.
What does yet another accolade do for Charleston, already a darling of tourists and preservationists? According to Charleston World Heritage Coalition Executive Director Tom Aspinwall, the sole employee of a private advocacy group leading the charge, World Heritage designation would put Charleston in the international spotlight and possibly position the city to receive big-time preservation money.
“This designation can be used to differentiate organizations from other people competing for grant money,” Aspinwall says. “It opens funding opportunities from international governments.” In the event of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or massive flooding, governments can apply for relief from a revolving World Heritage Fund.
But what about international interference in city affairs?
“It’s really not a question of legally prohibiting or allowing anything,” Aspinwall says. “One of the reasons that Charleston has such a significant leg up in terms of undertaking this process is that our existing preservation zoning ordinances are really the most stringent in the country … This will not make it more difficult for property owners to do anything.”
In order to apply for World Heritage designation, property owners in an affected area must unanimously approve the application (see below for a list of potential buildings included in the application). Aspinwall says he started mailing application documents to the owners of the affected buildings three months ago.
City government is already on board with the idea. The latest incarnation of the City of Charleston’s long-term Preservation Plan, which was released in 2008 and co-written with help from the Historic Charleston Foundation and California-based architecture firm Page & Turnbull, notes that parts of the Lower Peninsula “may merit World Heritage status.” Noting that no U.S. cities have been placed on the list to date, the Preservation Plan states that achieving World Heritage status “would propel Charleston’s preservation dialogue to an international level with its contemporaries in cultural resources and awareness.”
Aspinwall doesn’t have a definite timeline for the application process, which is supervised by the National Park Service in the United States. He says he anticipates the application could be approved as early as 2017, although it could be years later. Half of the 22 World Heritage sites in the U.S. are National Parks, and few of them are in cities. Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and parts of the University of Virginia are on the list, but Charleston’s application would be the first time an ensemble of active urban buildings in the U.S. has earned a place on the list.
World Heritage designation sometimes comes with political baggage. In 1995, UNESCO caused consternation among U.S. conservatives when it placed Yellowstone National Park on its “world heritage in danger” list due to gold mining nearby. According to a report in the U.K.-based Independent, “Conservatives in Washington decided that the scheme was an undercover attempt to subvert America’s rights to govern itself and to destroy the fabric of U.S. sovereignty.” No further World Heritage sites were approved in the U.S. until 2010.
The Economist also criticized the opacity of World Heritage site approval process in a 2010 editorial, demanding that UNESCO open up its decision-making meetings to the public. “The hard fact is that danger listings, as well as inscribing sites in the first place, are getting infected by politics,” the editorial stated.
The Charleston World Heritage Coalition provided the following list of potential sites to be included in the World Heritage application. “We are still engaging many of these institutions and refining our argument for ‘outstanding universal value,’ so this will not be the final list, nor have all organizations signed on,” Aspinwall wrote in an e-mail.
Bethel United Methodist Church
Old Bethel United Methodist Church
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul
Central Baptist Church
Circular Congregational Church
Charleston County Courthouse
City Marker and Sheds
College of Charleston (Randolph Hall)
Deutsche Freundschaftsbund Hall
Emmanuel AME Church
Exchange and Provost Building
First Baptist Church
First Scot’s Presbyterian
French Huguenot Church
German Friendly Society
Grace Episcopal Church
Hebrew Orphan Society
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue
Mt. Zion AME Church
Old Marine Hospital
Old Slave Mart
Second Presbyterian Church
St. John’s Lutheran Church
St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church
St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church
U.S. Customs House
U.S. Post Office and Federal Courthouse