Too beautiful for their own good

6 mins read


It is Sunday morning and I’m in my home in Port Royal drinking my first cup of coffee. This morning I have my Gazette and a front page story about work on the Hilton Head Island Bridge. 

There is also a story about Joe Cunningham and the Republican hopefuls who intend to recapture the 1st Congressional District and bring it back to its rightful, conservative political tribe. 

I also have my Wall Street Journal and its weekend section, called Review, which I will read throughout the coming week hoping for a book that will inspire. This week there is a review that gives one a thoughtful re-appraisal of Oliver Wendell Holmes; a lengthy review centered on amusement parks; a review (of a book) about the 38 sets of siblings aboard the USS Arizona when the Japanese came calling. 

I find all of this early morning reconnaissance entertaining, but I’m drawn to a book called “Charleston Fancy” by Witold Rybczynski — Yale, 246 pages, $28. I am intrigued by the blurb “A city like Charleston cannot be planned. It boasts no iconic buildings or monuments. So what accounts for its charm?”

The book tells us the story of George Holt — who dropped out of the College of Charleston in the 70s — and came under the influence of an architect, “from whom Mr. Hold learns to love and understand old buildings.” Then George acquired a little money of his own, and two friends with a little more money, and they bought a run-down, “single house” on Perry Street.

The three friends renovated the house. But what makes these folks a different is their instinctive, or learned, love of the “narrow two-story affairs with its gable end facing the street and its upper piazzas — or verandas — overlooking a small side yard.” 

What makes this renovation story distinctive is the fact that these folks had to work within the framework of the existing (exterior) walls, porches and piazza. 

Many years ago Charleston decided that it was content with its scale — its modest height limitation. 

One could admire the 40-story buildings in midtown Manhattan, or Portman’s towers in Atlanta for that matter, but Charleston wasn’t going to get into the high-rise, glass-enclosed-penthouse-on-the-top market. If one was looking for that kind of that vertical atmospheric life, well, one could move.

But the interiors of these modest, “two-story affairs” were another matter. 

Recognizing there is an irrepressible desire to knock out walls, replace countertops, and redesign one’s bathroom with Kohler-quality shower heads, the rules for interior change were almost non-existent.

“And then there’s Mr Holt’s home, a Byzantine-inspired wonderland at the end of a back lane, hidden behind an undecorated plaster exterior. The stone entry hall contains a small swimming pool surrounded by an arched colonnade and lighted by a pair of Venetian gondola lanterns. A domed ceiling towers over the living room, with four smaller domes in the corners, a quincunx arrangement modeled after an 11th-century Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul.”

One imagines a horse drawn carriage passing by Mr. Holt’s home — these passengers not knowing that behind the plain plaster walls there is an 11th Century Greek Orthodox church. One wonders whether or not this revelation would be amusing or would it disappoint.

While Charleston has been rock-solid in protecting its residential architecture, it has been less successful keeping local businesses alive. Hughes Lumber, Bob Ellis Shoes and Morris Sokol Furniture have given way to Vans, Forever 21, Williams Sonoma, West Elm and Urban Outfitters. It seems the six million tourists who flood Charleston’s narrow streets every year want their Five Guys burgers, their Chipotle salads and their Starbuck’s latte. The local, family-owned businesses are giving way to corporate brands.

What is more troubling is the fact that short term rentals are squeezing-out long term renters, and that a dining food tax (10.5 percent) and an alcohol tax (15 percent) are making it hard for residents to find a local, reasonably-priced restaurant. 

While Charleston’s facade is being maintained, the local folks are giving way to the tourists who pour into its new hotels on upper King Street. 

Many of the homes south of Broad Street are now owned by corporations. Long time residents have departed Tradd and Coming Streets for Mount Pleasant or Sullivan’s Island. I suppose this transformation was inevitable. 

Some places are just too beautiful for their own good. 

Venice, for example, is expected to lose all of its residential population by 2030. We’re not just talking poor people who can’t afford the rents or meals at the local trattoria. We’re talking everybody who lives on those iconic canals will be displaced by those sleeping at the Baglioni or having their gnocchi on Piazza San Marco.

One wonders if Charleston is on that road?

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