Founded in 1920, the Preservation Society of Charleston is the oldest community-based historic preservation organization in the United States.
Founded in 1920, the Preservation Society of Charleston is the oldest community-based historic preservation organization in the United States. Originally called the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, it was founded by Susan Pringle Frost and a small group of individuals who were concerned about the future of the Joseph Manigault House, a ca. 1802 dwelling that was eventually restored. Frost, an active suffragette and thought to be the first woman realtor in Charleston, sought to create an organization dedicated to the preservation of historic dwellings. In 1931 the society was instrumental in persuading the Charleston City Council to pass the nation’s first historic district zoning law, which established a board of architectural review and designated a 138-acre “Old and Historic District.” The district has since been expanded to include more than 4,800 historic structures.
The adoption of the society’s current name in 1957 reflected the organization’s expanded mission to protect not only dwellings but all sites and structures of historic significance or aesthetic value. The society has sought to fulfill its mission through programs that focus on preservation education, advocacy, and planning. One such effort is the organization’s Carolopolis Award program, begun in 1953 to recognize outstanding achievement in exterior preservation, exterior restoration, exterior rehabilitation, and new construction in the city. As of 2003 the Preservation Society of Charleston had given more than twelve hundred Carolopolis plaques. In 1956 the society began publishing its award-winning quarterly newsletter, Preservation Progress, to better inform its members of historic preservation issues. In the 1970s it was one of the first organizations in South Carolina to accept exterior and interior preservation easements. The society’s preservation easement program offers owners of historic properties an effective way to protect the architectural integrity of their historic properties and receive state and federal tax deductions.
As of 2002 the society had more than two thousand members from South Carolina and thirty-five other states who are concerned about the future of Charleston’s historic district. The Preservation Society of Charleston is a volunteer organization administered by a volunteer board and seven paid staff members. As an advocacy organization, the society has fought to encourage developers and private homeowners to use appropriate techniques to preserve historic buildings and to ensure that new construction is compatible with and respectful of the city’s existing historic architecture. It has also worked closely with Charleston’s historic neighborhood associations to support the concerns of citizens who seek to maintain a livable historic city. In recognition of its efforts, the American Institute of Architects presented the Preservation Society of Charleston with its 1996 Institute Honor Award, recognizing that by “being as much a part of Charleston, South Carolina history as protector of it, this Society has wrought a standard of commitment to community befitting the beauty and rich legacy of the city it has served for over 75 years.”
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.