Downtown Charleston today would be a dramatically different place without the Historic Charleston Foundation | Photo by Ruta Smith

The Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) is celebrating three quarters of a century advocating for the city’s preservation while evolving to meet current needs for affordable housing, efficient transportation and balanced development.

Hastie

The year-long observance includes the foundation’s Charter Day awards program at 6 p.m., Thursday, at First Baptist Church on Church St. At that event, HCF will honor the skilled craftsmen who preserve the Holy City’s historic structures. Winslow Hastie, HCF’s president and CEO, said Charleston owes its success as a tourism destination and a popular place to live to its preservation values. One of the HCF’s most significant legacies, he said, is the merging of preservation thinking into urban planning.

The foundation was the outcome of a preservation study by the Carolina Art Association, now the Gibbes Museum of Art. It was formally launched in 1947 as an educational, nonprofit preservation organization. Frances R. Edmunds was named as its first director. HCF’s preservation mindset, Hastie explained, emerged in the post-World War II period when the foundation looked at the city broadly and not on just individual structures. 

“When we see complicated issues around new buildings and how to fit them into the historic district or zoning issues or more recently sea-level rise and affordable housing, we bring experts from outside the community who have done successful things elsewhere,” he said. “We bring that thought leadership to Charleston … (and it) has had a meaningful impact on the city to influence public policy.”

A decade after its founding, the HCF established a first-in-the-nation revolving fund to rehabilitate the Ansonborough neighborhood. It purchased a property, stabilized it, sold to a preservation-minded buyer, then reinvested the proceeds to buy another house in the neighborhood.

That preservation initiative continues to serve as a national model. It offered plenty of positives, but, Hastie added, there were negatives. “It was very much, in some cases, the forced displacement of African American residents in Ansonborough,” he said. “There was a gentrifying element to it. As an alternative to wholesale demolition, it was better. But there were some social and cultural consequences at that time we weren’t very sensitive to.”

The HCF has since expanded its appreciation for and the protection of African American settlement communities in areas surrounding the city, such as Red Top to the south of the city, Cainhoy to the north and the James Island communities of Beefield and Sol Legare and its Mosquito Beach.

House museum ownership and management were not part of HCF’s original mission, but the organization has continued to evolve. In 1955 the foundation purchased the Nathaniel Russell House at 51 Meeting St. to save it from being chopped up into apartments. The foundation also owns the Aiken-Rhett House at 48 Elizabeth St. Both properties are open for daily tours.

By 1976, HCF had saved a six-block neighborhood, including 60 buildings, several of which were donated by supporters. As of today, the HCF has nearly 400 properties under protective easements and covenants.

While the HCF is a national preservation leader, Hastie said the foundation avoids comparing its success with that of other cities, such as Savannah, where organizations like the Historic Savannah Foundation have helped keep Charleston’s sister city both preserved and vibrant. 

The HCF founders, he said, recognized even 75 years ago Charleston is not a theme park frozen in time: “Preservation used to be very building focused, and it is (now) also about people, culture and neighborhoods,” Hastie added.

“They were smart enough back then even when there was a lot less development pressure to understand that cities that do not evolve and change will ultimately die.”

A schedule of the foundation’s 75th anniversary events can be found online at historiccharlestonfoundation.org.


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