Beaufort Historic District on top 10 Great Neighborhoods list

emoody@beaufortgazette.comOctober 4, 2013 

The ante-bellum mansions, moss-draped trees and overall ambiance have netted the Beaufort Historic District a place on the American Planning Association's list of 10 Great Neighborhoods for 2013.

But the community's real strength comes from its residents, city planner Libby Anderson said.

"We got the nomination for the architecture, the plans, the buildings, but what really makes us special is what's in these interviews ... the people who live there and love it," she said while leafing through a stack of interview notes Friday afternoon.

Anderson and other city employees spent hours talking with residents while completing the application, which also included past and future plans, maps, photos and neighborhood outreach information. The list is part of the association's Great Places in America program.

One woman said she moved to the city because she wanted to live in a "real community" and discovered how welcoming Beaufort residents are, Anderson said.

"That's very important, because in an established community, that's not necessarily the case," she said.

Northwest Quadrant residents told Anderson stories of growing up helping each other, cooking large meals to share and picking up groceries for neighbors.

The Point residents Terry and Peter Hussey focused on civic pride.

"People disagree on small things, but they all agree they love Beaufort," Anderson read from interview notes.

The award was announced Friday in a news release, which said the district was chosen because of "its well-preserved architecture, sustainable design, natural features and focus on planning. The neighborhood's beauty and history engender a strong sense of place -- and even stronger sense of community."

The historic district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and declared a national historic landmark in 1973.

It includes downtown, The Point, The Bluff, the Old Commons and the Northwest Quadrant.

"For more than 300 years, Beaufort has maintained a remarkable and renowned 'hometown' feeling and character that have always been anchored in the Historic District," Mayor Billy Keyserling said in the release. "For a lot of those years, I think many who live here have taken it for granted. It wasn't until the 1970s that a small group of determined people took a stand to protect Beaufort's history."

APA CEO Paul Farmer said the design of the district capitalizes on the views, location and environment. The historic district has also recovered from devastating fires and hurricanes.

The recognition is wonderful, said Historic Beaufort Foundation executive director Maxine Lutz.

"We all know why we live here, and this is just so affirming to all of us who work so hard," Lutz said.

The nine other Great Neighborhoods this year are: Chinatown, San Francisco; downtown Norwich, Conn.; downtown Decatur, Ga.; Central Street neighborhood, Evanston, Ill.; downtown Mason City, Iowa; Historic Licking Riverside neighborhood, Covington, Ky.; Kenwood, Minneapolis; West Freemason, Norfolk, Va.; and Williamson-Marquette neighborhood, Madison, Wis.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

The American Planning Association on the Beaufort Historic District:

A sense of timelessness pervades the Beaufort Historic District, a neighborhood distinguished by stunning vistas and architecture spanning more than 250 years. That's not to say this quaint district is a throwback in time. Rather, it is a place that embraces its past, employing principles and precedents that are as relevant today as when the district was first planned in 1711.

The neighborhood's layout and the size, mass and scale of buildings make it intrinsically green. Small, walkable blocks and a consistent lot orientation maximize cooling in summer from prevailing winds and heating in winter from a southerly sun exposure. Natural building techniques - porticoes, high ceilings and raised foundations - allow for year-round comfort. The neighborhood's centuries-long tradition of adaptive reuse utilizes existing infrastructure.

Bridges, streetscapes, and building style are defining elements among the Historic Districts five distinct The range of architecture - such as Federal, Georgian, , Italianate, and Queen Anne - results from the city's history and settlement patterns. There are large stately mansions built as summer homes by wealthy planters looking to escape pestilent mosquitoes, small working-class cottages home to many African Americans, and grand civic institutions. Bridges and streetscapes are defining elements. Residential streets boast verdant tree canopies - often Live Oaks draped in Spanish moss - while commercial thoroughfares feature awnings and strategically placed trees.

The district's beauty and rich history give rise to a sense of community and an affability that goes beyond traditional Southern hospitality. There is a resiliency and deep sense of pride among all residents that has allowed this neighborhood to overcome adversity and thrive.

A key player in the Secessionist movement - those advocating Southern independence met in the 1810 Maxcy-Rhett house - Beaufort, ironically, benefited from its long occupation by Union troops. The commandeering of residences for hospitals and officers' quarters spared it from the fiery fate of other Confederate cities. Mother Nature wasn't as generous. Devastated by an 1893 hurricane and 1907 fire, Beaufort saw its population drop 40 percent from 1900-1910.

Residents eventually rallied. A 1945 effort to save the Verdier House, circa 1804, led to creation of the Historic Beaufort Foundation. In 1968, Beaufort recognized the neighborhood as a local historic district. National Landmark Historic District status was achieved in 1973 after the city adopted a district-specific zoning ordinance and established a Historic District Review Board.

The $5.3 million Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, the result of a 1975 plan, served as a springboard for revitalization, bringing residents and visitors to the neighborhood for events such as the Water Festival, Gullah Festival, and Taste of Beaufort. More recently, a 2001 park master plan resulted in a $6.8 million renovation. Other plans address the neighborhood's traditional African-American settlement, the Northwest Quadrant, and include redevelopment of the mixed-use corridor on Bladen Street.

Planning Milestones

  • Initial plan (1711) uses grid layout with small, 300-feet by 300-feet blocks; neighborhood is 304 acres with two miles-plus of waterfront property (128 blocks) on Port Royal Island

  • Feiss-Wright Survey of Historic District (1970) leads to creation of architectural review board

  • Historic preservation plans (1989, 2008) address threats to Historic Landmark status

  • Waterfront Park Plan (1975) lays foundation for $5.3 million riverfront park with marina; plan update (2001) results in $6.8 million in renovations

  • Survey of Northwest Quadrant (2009) focuses attention on restoration of blighted properties

  • Bladen Street Redevelopment overlay code (2010) results in sustainable improvements

  • Civic Master Plan (2013) - to be implemented through new form-based zoning, calibrated to character of each neighborhood - provides for more compatible development in historic district

  • Natural and Manmade Beauty

  • Scenic vistas are protected; streets terminating at river have unimpeded views

  • Parkland preserves natural settings; The Bluff, a 15-foot natural bluff, meets a river marsh; The Green features open space dotted by moss-covered Live Oaks that characterize region

  • Impressive antebellum architecture includes Federal, Italianate, Greek and Gothic Revival

  • Colonial-era structures destroyed by hurricane (1893), fire (1907); oldest house dates to 1717; St. Helena's Episcopal Church (est. 1712; built 1724) one of oldest active in North America

  • Civic institutions include brick-and-tabby Arsenal (1795), Greek Revival Beaufort College Building (1852), District Courthouse (1883), Carnegie Library and U.S. Post Office (both 1917)

  • Attractive streetscapes differentiate residential from commercial; tree canopies define residential roads; awnings and strategically placed trees hallmarks of commercial streets

  • Woods Memorial Bridge (1959), now eligible for listing on National Register, is a metal truss structure and one of last remaining swing bridges in state; visible from Waterfront Park

  • Historic Preservation

  • Committee to Save the Lafayette Building (aka Verdier House), forms in 1945 to preserve 141-year-old structure; evolves into Historic Beaufort Foundation (1965)

  • Officially recognized as local historic district (1968); added to National Register of Historic Places (1969); designated a National Landmark Historic District (1973)

  • City adopts historic district zoning, establishes Historic District Review Board (1970); publishes preservation manual (aka Milner Guidelines) (1979, 1990)

  • Main Street Beaufort (1985) helps preserve district's history and culture, stimulate commerce

  • Form-based zoning (2013) emphasizes compatibility between existing and new structures (We adopted a form-based code for the Bladen Street area in 2010, and are in the process of adopting a city-wide form based code; not sure what was intended with this bullet. . .)

  • Sustainability, Amenities

  • Homes sited to use winds for summer cooling, southerly exposure for winter heating

  • Porticoes, large shuttered windows, high ceilings help provide year-round comfort

  • Centuries-old tradition of adaptive reuse - i.e. conversion of historic homes to inns, old city hall to market and cafè - utilizes existing infrastructure

  • Streetscape programs make use of pervious pavers, other sustainable products and practices

  • Commercial Street includes art galleries, bookstores, antique shops, restaurants, museums

  • Waterfront Park hosts yearly Water Festival, Gullah Festival, Shrimp Festival, Taste of Beaufort

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