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Historic Preservation

South Carolina continues to play a leading role in historic preservation through the work of countless local and state government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and individuals.

Few other states can rival the Palmetto State’s devotion to history as measured by the preservation and interpretation of the places and buildings associated with its past. Antebellum South Carolinians, proud that their state had been the scene of hundreds of battles and smaller actions during the Revolution, observed the anniversaries of victories at Fort Moultrie, Kings Mountain, and Cowpens and erected monuments on those and other battlefields, urging citizens to honor and emulate their patriot ancestors.

In many ways the origins of the historic preservation movement in America can be traced to the determination of one South Carolina woman who believed that Mount Vernon should be a national shrine. In 1853, after the federal government and the Commonwealth of Virginia had both declined to buy the house and plantation for $200,000, rumors circulated that the property might be sold to a group of investors intending to build a hotel. Ann Pamela Cunningham of Laurens District, who had recently seen Mount Vernon and was astonished at its poor condition, wrote a letter addressed to “The Ladies of the South,” asking them, “Can you be still with closed souls and purses, while the world cries ‘Shame upon America’ . . . ? Never! forbid it, shades of the dead . . . !” Cunningham and several friends founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, gathering momentum first in the South and then across the nation. Within five years the association raised enough money to acquire the house and plantation from John A. Washington, begin renovations, and open the house to the public.

In the first seventy-five years after the Civil War, many white southerners looked more toward the past than toward the future, even if their version of the past was more mythic, perhaps, than historical. Many white South Carolinians looked back to the colonial, Revolutionary, and antebellum years when the state enjoyed immense wealth, social status, and political influence, and none longed for past glories more than Charlestonians, remembering the days when the “Holy City” had been one of the great cities of the South. Though hundreds of Charleston’s buildings, some of them predating the Revolution, served as tangible links to that past, there was no significant effort to preserve, maintain, and interpret them until just after World War I.

As new residents began moving to the city, and as automobiles began bringing large numbers of tourists, the real estate developer Susan Pringle Frost worked tirelessly to promote the appreciation of Charleston’s architectural heritage and, as she described later, “to preserve her old-world beauty.” Alarmed at the proposed demolition of the Joseph Manigault House, Frost and her cousin Nell Pringle founded the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings (SPOD), later renamed the Preservation Society of Charleston. The Charleston Museum eventually acquired both the Joseph Manigault House and the Heyward-Washington House, opening them to the public as house museums in the 1930s. Opposing a growing trend in which owners discarded or sold mantels and other essential architectural elements such as bricks, moldings, and ironwork, the society encouraged the preservation of such details in place. Frost soon began purchasing historic houses, renovating them, and renting or putting them back on the market. At first focusing her efforts along the Battery, she later expanded her vision to include most of the peninsula. The SPOD was determined to preserve neighborhoods and streetscapes instead of simply preserving and operating the grandest homes as house museums. In 1931 the SPOD helped draft a zoning ordinance creating the Charleston Old and Historic District, the first historic district in the United States. This district became a model soon followed by cities and towns across the country. Ten years later the society sponsored the first citywide architectural survey in America, an inventory of almost twelve hundred buildings on the lower peninsula with a rating system ranging from “worthy of mention” to “nationally significant.” In 1944 more than half the buildings surveyed were included in This Is Charleston, a book described as a “vital catalog of the townscape of Charleston” and featuring a text by the architectural historian Samuel G. Stoney. As increased tourism, the growth of urban and rural development, and the preservation of the more recent past became issues of even greater significance after World War II, the Historic Charleston Foundation was founded in 1947. An independent nonprofit organization, it was devoted not only to the preservation and interpretation of historic resources but also to the integration of those resources into city planning efforts. Frances R. Edmunds, who began working for the foundation as its tour director and then served as its executive director for many years, became a national leader in the historic preservation movement. Another major figure in Charleston’s modern era has been Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., whose longtime tenure and advocacy of preservation, downtown revitalization, adaptive reuse, and their associated cultural and economic benefits has balanced the growth of a vibrant city with the determination to retain those qualities that make it special.

Other South Carolina cities have enjoyed many successes and endured many frustrations in attempting to identify, document, and preserve their own built environments, from individual buildings to historic districts. As in Charleston, early efforts often focused on saving a particular building, such as the Burt-Stark House in Abbeville, the John Mark Verdier House in Beaufort, the Robert Mills House in Columbia, the Octagon House in Laurens, or the Opera House in Newberry. Later efforts have included residential and commercial districts of varying ages, characters, and sizes, as well as city- or countywide architectural surveys, the adoption of local preservation ordinances, and the integration of preservation into city and county planning.

South Carolina continues to play a leading role in historic preservation through the work of countless local and state government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and individuals. The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), part of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia, administers the federal historic preservation program in the state. The architects, architectural historians, archaeologists, historians, and historic preservationists on the SHPO staff oversee the National Register of Historic Places, the statewide survey of historic resources, federal and state grant and tax incentive programs, certified local government programs, the review of projects affecting historic resources as provided for in the National Historic Preservation Act, and the state’s historical marker program. The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit statewide organization focusing on advocacy, education, and the funding of preservation projects, was established in 1990.

Bland, Sidney R. Preserving Charleston’s Past, Shaping Its Future: The Life and Times of Susan Pringle Frost. 2d ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

Hosmer, Charles B. Presence of the Past: A History of the Preservation Movement in the United States before Williamsburg. New York: Putnam, 1965.

–––. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926–1949. 2 vols. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.

Murtagh, William J. Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America. Pittstown, N.J.: Main Street Press, 1988.

Weyeneth, Robert R. Historic Preservation for a Living City: Historic Charleston Foundation, 1947–1997. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Historic Preservation
  • Author
  • Keywords Battles, Antebellum South, Joseph Manigault House, Heyward-Washington House, Society for the Preservation of Old Buildings, Robert Mills House, State Historic Preservation Office
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date October 31, 2020
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 16, 2016
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