Beaufort News

The Local Life: Older structures - and history - can be saved from wrecking ball

'The engineer said this building can't be saved," is often cited when property owners in the National Historic Landmark District approach the City of Beaufort requesting demolition of a structure in the district.

Traditionally, the city's Historic District Review Board disallows demolitions because the criteria it uses to allow exterior changes to contributing structures to the landmark designation considers demolition a last resort. Every historic building lost -- those over 50 years old -- diminishes the integrity of the whole district and its ability to maintain landmark status.

Both the National Park Service, which designated the landmark district, and the city have standards or ordinances that reflect this limited-demo position. That's not to say that demo permits are not given. And yes, it's true that sometimes to save a structure means basically rebuilding it with whatever intact historical fabric remains and replacement materials that match the old in every way. Some of our historic jewels that remain today were once labeled "unsalvageable" including 814 Charles St. and 502 Scott's St.

The nonprofit Historic Beaufort Foundation confronted just such a scenario recently with its own property that in a community without a preservation ethic would have been hauled away in a day. The 1,000-square foot building at 208 Scott's St. stands behind the foundation's flagship restoration, the Verdier House. The structure has been used mostly as office space the past 40 years.

However, the building was built circa 1910 as a Model-T repair shop and later dispensed coal and lumber. At some time in its history, the garage doors were removed and the interior was finished so that any structural sins of the past were unapparent.

That is until Anchor Construction, the contractor converting the building to the foundation's permanent headquarters, began removing sheetrock, interior walls, ceiling and floor last May. Uh-oh! Two of the brick exterior walls were sitting directly on the ground. Uh-oh! The west wall was bowed about 4 feet. Uh-oh! The mortar in the north wall which was to have windows replaced that had been bricked in had turned to powder. The walls were no longer attached to the studs and the studs were rotten.

In a town in which there are not ordinances to protect historic buildings, or with a contractor unsympathetic to preservation or an owner who insists, "It can't be saved," 208 Scott's St. would now be an empty lot. Instead, the creative contractor removed the two walls that would have collapsed had the work progressed and rebuilt them. At one point, when the only unoriginal wall (the front facade) was partially removed for replacement, the poor old building consisted of only one complete wall and a roof.

Can we say this building was saved? One wall was saved along with half of the facade. The roof was saved as was original bead board hidden behind sheetrock and the dropped ceiling. Its form and footprint were saved; its relationship to the streetscape remains.

Sometimes this is the most that can be hoped for, and in this regard, we think it's an inspiring preservation project.

Maxine Lutz is an executive and board assistant of Historic Beaufort Foundation.