On its 40th anniversary, city's Historic District still strikes "a delicate balance'

December 16, 2009 

  • The Historic Beaufort Foundation's 1968 survey of buildings listed 343 structures as contributing to the historic district. By 1998, 113 of them had been demolished or altered beyond recognition. Here by neighborhood, is the number of structures lost or altered beyond recognition: Heart of downtown: 52 percent Northwest Quadrant: 50 percent Old Commons: 40 percent The Point: 11.5 percent Source: Historic Beaufort Foundation

It's hard to say what Beaufort would look like had the city let developers bulldoze its historic downtown, build high-rise hotels near the river and replace quaint shops and houses with strip malls and cookie-cutter developments.

But Historic Beaufort Foundation Executive Director Evan Thompson thinks he knows. It would look a lot like "Anywhere, USA," he said.

For decades, Beaufort has maintained a unique sense of place thanks to strategic preservation efforts, including one led by the Historic Beaufort Foundation that is now celebrating an anniversary.

Forty years ago today, Beaufort's Historic District -- more than 300 acres bounded by the Beaufort River, Hamar and Bladen streets and Boundary Street -- was established through the National Register of Historic Places.

It's more than just a designation, Thompson said. The designation bring more funding opportunities and pushed the city to establish stricter rules on what structures go up -- or come down -- in the area.

Most importantly, the designation has helped preserve history, making Beaufort a national destination location for those who enjoy architecture, a uniquely built environment and historical significance, he said.

PICKING THEIR BATTLES

Beaufort's preservation movement gained momentum in 1967, two years before the designation, when a group of residents formed the Historic Beaufort Foundation, according to Thompson. The group commissioned a survey of the city's buildings and submitted an application to establish the Beaufort Historic District.

But even after winning the designation, treasures were sometimes lost, said Terry Murray, former Historic Beaufort Foundation president.

Over the years, the foundation has learned to pick and choose its battles.

Some preservation ordinances weren't enforced until 10 years ago, Thompson said, leading to demolitions and inappropriate renovations in the Northwest Quadrant and Old Commons neighborhoods. Substantial buildings on West and Scott streets fell as the city made way for parking at City Hall and the public library, he said.

In November, the city demolished historic houses at 912 Washington St. and 1703 Duke Street. The foundation tried working with property owners but felt that short of paying for needed renovations itself, the buildings would continue to deteriorate. So the foundation didn't protest the demolitions, Thompson said at the time.

Past foundation officials faced similar dilemmas.

"We didn't win every fight," Murray said. "I'm sure that we've probably lost some buildings that everyone regrets now."

The victories, however, have outweighed the losses, she said.

In the mid-1980s, the foundation and the city's Board of Architectural Review -- now the Historic District Review Board -- helped squash a proposed five- or six-story hotel on Bay Street. The development would have wiped out smaller, more historic structures, Murray said.

"It would have been a high-rise and dominated the downtown skyline," she said.

Efforts like that one have kept Beaufort's character intact and helped continue fueling history-related tourism, one of the top reasons people visit the area, according to a recent survey by the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce.

'A DELICATE BALANCE'

Down every street and behind each historic building lies a story.

Milton Parker, 75, one of the foundation's original board members, grew up in Beaufort. His father was a dairy farmer, and together they would travel through town every morning delivering milk.

Their route wasn't limited to The Point, one of Beaufort's more expensive neighborhoods. It ranged across the city.

From an early age, Parker saw and respected the humble but historic homes east of Carteret Street -- many of which were in the Northwest Quadrant, a neighborhood first settled by freed slaves during and after the Civil War.

Years later, after he and his wife bought a home in the historic district, Parker jumped at the chance to join the fledgling foundation and promote its preservation efforts.

"I think people were just sort of beginning to realize what we had and what we were losing," he said. "Just hearing about some organization that would be interested in preservation was very exciting."

In 1973, the historic district earned a more selective distinction when it became a National Historic Landmark. To maintain the designations, at least 50 percent of the district’s structures must be considered “contributing” to the historic nature.

In the past, some city council members have said the historic designation — and the rules and regulations that come with it — slows down new development in the area and makes renovations more costly.

The foundation has long tried to navigate the "delicate balance" between saving historic treasures and avoiding over-regulation that would dissuade renovation and new, appropriate construction, Thompson said.

If the foundation has made one misstep recently, he said, it has been in re-educating people about the hard work it has taken to keep Beaufort's historical assets intact and why that mission must continue.

The foundation, along with Main Street Beaufort, USA, the Beaufort County Open Land Trust and other local non-profit organizations must advocate, research, document and promote preservation, he said.

"There's Hilton Head, there's Myrtle Beach, and then there's Beaufort, which has a totally different feel," he said. "We want to make sure that preservation is seen as a real positive benefit to the community and not simply an obstacle to some Myrtle Beach-type progress."

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