Whether you’re new to this area or a lifelong resident, it’s easy to forget what’s in your own backyard, or in this case, 10 minutes over the bridge. While there’s plenty of history in Mount Pleasant to appreciate, a visit to the Holy City helps us keep our own in perspective.
This October, some of Charleston’s finest architecture, garden spaces and heritage will be on full display by the Preservation Society of Charleston’s Fall Tours and Master Series. Not only will these walks, curated by architects and historians, present a rich understanding of the city’s past, they will shine a light on pressing issues that threaten Charleston’s existence.
By strict definition, to preserve means to keep intact, and that is exactly what the Preservation Society’s mission is: to keep Charleston intact for the next generation to enjoy. The organization works hand-in-hand with city officials and partners with other like-minded advocates to push a thoughtful agenda that encompasses livability, authenticity and resiliency.
The Preservation Society is 101 years old and was started by Susan Pringle Frost, who was described by Anna-Catherine Carroll, current manager of Preservation Initiatives, as “a pioneering, progressive-thinking woman for her time who saw preservation not as a reactionary word but as a proactive approach to creating a livable community.” Today, that community is existentially threatened by a myriad of issues that include flooding, overdevelopment and tourism management.
Carroll mused over what makes the city of Charleston great beneath the glossy brand-image that is typically projected. “Its vibrancy, sense of place and diversity,” she said. “Charleston is defined by its community-created character.” Susan Epstein, manager of tours, added, “It’s not a living museum — it’s a real neighborhood. It’s really about livability. You want to live somewhere that is at human scale. No one wants stand-still traffic and skyscrapers.”
Preserving authenticity or “Charleston charm” is a “week by week proactive approach to managing change,” explained Carroll. “We never want to be pegged as anti-progress. Just the opposite, we are constantly future-casting. Whether it’s planning and zoning decisions or architectural review, we always consider how to interpret our history and share who we are as a city with one eye to the future.”
As the population grows, Epstein is confident that Charleston’s resiliency will help it adapt. “It comes down to planning for that growth in a thoughtful manner, and Charleston County’s comprehensive plan update gives us the ability to see what’s coming down the pipeline,” added Carroll, noting that as the region grows, so does their own scope of work, and they often find themselves in areas of the Lowcountry where they are not well-known.
“People tend to think of us just as downtown, but we are monitoring impacts from suburban growth as well,” Carroll continued. She gave examples of payoffs to their advocacy for underrepresented communities, including the recent DHEC stop work order on the Cainhoy historical burial grounds that were slated for redevelopment.
The society’s weekly eblast is a great way to keep membership and the community at large well-informed. “There are ample opportunities to weigh in,” noted Carroll. “We recognize the challenges to engage can be time-consuming, which is why this is our full-time job, but we want you to be aware of issues that interest you or could impact your community and equip you with the tools necessary to get your voice heard.”
For more information about the Preservation Society of Charleston, visit preservationsociety.org.
The Fall Tours and Master Classes
Imagine flinging open your front doors and welcoming strangers into your home. A select number of downtown residents do just that each year. Trained docents become temporary stewards as they wind small parties up and down staircases, sharing details and waxing poetic about interior design work. Outside, landscape architects, designers and the very people who have tended these gardens for the past 30 years or so — and who, as Epstein said casually, “know what will make or break a garden”— reveal the hidden spaces that speak volumes about history.
But it’s not just the front of the house — it’s often the inner workings in the back that hold the intrigue and that whisper of secrets yearning to be uncovered. Along the streets, local storytellers weave together themed tours to thrill the romantic, the history buff, the photographer or the gardener in all of us.
“What incredible resources we have right here in our neighborhoods,” Epstein exclaimed. She is not only the manager of tours but a horticulturalist who happily customizes tours of picturesque Charleston throughout the year for locals and visitors alike. With the volume of people moving here every day, this fall series becomes not just an attraction but a necessary history lesson about the city that has welcomed us all. “We have a social responsibility to be informed about our history and invest in understanding,” she explained. “As a resident, the more you learn, the more you will want to stand up and defend the authentic version of what Charleston’s history really is.”
The Preservation Society of Charleston’s Fall Tours gives us reason to not only celebrate each opened gate but to pause and reflect upon the care that goes into upkeep or updates of each home. Each slice of history is preserved and adapted because progress demands it.