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Vernacular Is Beautiful—If We Would Just Allow It

March 31, 2022 by admin
Policy/Legislative

Charleston, SC. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The oldest city in the Deep South is centered on a liver-shaped peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers in the South Carolina Lowcountry, about halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and the vacation magnet of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Charleston.

Unlike Boston and New York, and more like the later Philadelphia and Savannah, Charleston was a planned city, with a surveyor laying out a grid plan in 1670, which was gradually realized over the next decade. Its major feature was that blocks could be very large—up to 600 feet on a side, according to Witold Rybczynski in his book Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City.

These blocks, combined with the hot and humid climate, contributed to a unique vernacular style of development in the city: the “single house” on little alleys and laneways accessing the block interiors. Usually two stories with pitched roofs, the most unique feature of the single house is that what looks like the front door opens onto a porch or veranda, which is also on two floors, a design that helps create cross ventilation, according to Rybczynski.

Like houses in Tokyo, the narrow, single houses are tightly packed at the street, even if they extend back into the lot. They often feature elements like gardens in the side yards and trees for added shade. They manage to create an active and diverse streetscape while still allowing for the houses to be detached.

The city initially grew prosperous off of the slave trade, as it was one of the main ports of entry of enslaved Africans into what would become the United States. Even after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, Charleston played a key role in moving enslaved people from part of the country to another, the smuggling of slaves into the country, and the export of the products of slave labor: chiefly cotton, rice, and indigo.

In the 20th century, however, Charleston experienced suburbanization and the United States military built several facilities in the area—Army, Navy, and Air Force units were based there, now combined in Joint Base Charleston—and private industries set up operations in outlying areas like North Charleston and Goose Creek. Highways like Interstate 26 and U.S. 17 bisected the city, but avoided the historic core. Still, like many cities in the time, the population of inner neighborhoods fell as people moved to the suburbs.

Many older neighborhoods lost population and land value, resulting in a number of vacant buildings and homes. As the inner city’s fortunes rose again, people began buying these inexpensive homes, renovating them and selling them for a profit. Soon, they noticed the demand for traditional houses and began using the lot interiors to do infill projects in the traditional style.

One of these developers is Vince Graham, whose walkable, traditional developments with his company, Loci, bring together a deep understanding of place and respect for the vernacular architecture. Graham’s been working on development like this since 1991, when he did a project called Newpoint, on Lady Island near Beaufort, to the southwest of Charleston.

Graham’s projects, like Morris Square in Charleston and I’On and Earl’s Court in Mount Pleasant are all but indistinguishable from historic buildings, featuring narrow streets and high lot coverages not often seen nowadays, even in new projects in historic districts.

I’On, Mount Pleasant, SC. (Source: Dover, Kohl & Partners.)

“The biggest obstacle about what we do is zoning,” Graham said. “We’re trapped in a matrix. It doesn’t allow it.”

But the results speak for themselves—homes in the neighborhoods Graham built fetch some of the highest prices per square foot in the Charleston area and have been featured on lifestyle magazine covers in the region.

Graham said that getting the city to approve projects could take anywhere from a few months to several years and need variances. “Most people don’t understand that the older neighborhoods people admire so much were outlawed in the twentieth century,” he said. “It’s dozens of things that make it impossible to build in the manner of historic Charleston.”

According to Rybczynski in Charleston Fancy, Graham often starts out with a place he likes. Newpoint was inspired by the Old Point neighborhood in Beaufort, for example, and I’On was based on the Old Village in Mount Pleasant. The result is akin to something like Leon Krier’s “expansion through organic replication,” as the older neighborhoods influence the look of the new development, rather than duplicate it entirely. For example, the Old Village features more diverse building types, from small and modest houses that appear to be shotgun and dogtrot houses, to grander houses that appear to be made out of masonry and even some Italianate style brick buildings used for civic purposes. Old Village also has more retail, which local NIMBYs forced Graham to heavily reduce during the approval process. But the biggest difference is in parking: By using rear lanes for parking, the streets of I’On are remarkably free of parked cars for an American city, while Old Village has cars parked on the street, as well as in driveways.

I’On, Mount Pleasant, SC. (Source: Dover, Kohl & Partners.)

In recent years, a number of developers and architects working in Charleston’s traditional idiom appeared, not just Graham. Rybczynski writes about some and others can be found from their popular posts among fans of traditional architecture on Twitter and Instagram. And Charleston is neither a New Urbanist paradise nor a historicist Disneyland: Graham and the other developers face NIMBYism, skepticism from city officials, the aforementioned zoning code that’s hostile to traditional designs and other issues small builders in many cities around the country would face when attempting to build in the vernacular. But Graham’s success proves that they can be won over: According to Rybczynski, two of the most obstinate opponents of I’On eventually bought homes there.

Graham’s attention to detail, helps, too.

Augusta, Georgia, is over 100 miles inland from Charleston and is best known these days as the home of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament. But among golfers and sportswriters, the club is also renowned for its attention to detail. According to Gastro Obscura, “What sets the Masters apart, however, is a behind-the-scenes devotion to aesthetic perfection that evokes from its regular patrons a near-religious devotion.” As an example, journalist Scott Michaux told Gastro Obscura that when Augusta builds a new building, they don’t publicize it, attendees simply find it, already covered in vines. That’s what looking at Graham’s buildings is like.

The work of small developers like Vince Graham demonstrates that it is possible for small developers to build beautiful things, even one building at a time.

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2022/3/21/vernacular-is-beautifulif-we-would-just-allow-it

Matthew M. Robare is a Boston-based freelance writer specializing in urbanism and transportation. Follow him on Twitter @MattRobare. His website is www.mattrobarewrites.com.

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