David Lauderdale

‘Die by a thousand cuts’: Beaufort historic district champion leaves with tips for future

Restoration at Beaufort’s historic ‘Big Chill’ home turned-up these five unusual things

During restoration of Beaufort's Tidalholm, also known as 'Big Chill' home, several unusual items were found.
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During restoration of Beaufort's Tidalholm, also known as 'Big Chill' home, several unusual items were found.

Picture a toilet sitting out in the open air because the house is falling apart around it.

Raccoons use it like a bird feeder.

Now picture that same home fully restored by a couple from Texas.

Welcome to Beaufort.

If the glistening river along Bay Street represents Beaufort’s heart, old buildings are its soul.

The old is what keeps Beaufort new, and makes it authentic.

Keeping it that way has been tricky since 1946. That’s when a small group of citizens rose up to say “no” when the John Mark Verdier House -- where some say Marquis de Lafayette once addressed citizens on Bay Street down below -- was going to be torn down for a gas station.

For 21 years, Maxine Lutz has been at the heart of protecting Beaufort’s National Historic Landmark District.

But Friday was her last day as executive director of the nonprofit Historic Beaufort Foundation. She’s now retired, but will probably be seen around as a volunteer. Her husband, Benton Lutz, will continue his psychotherapist practice, and they will remain in their artsy home in the Old Commons neighborhood.

Lutz has been a fixture at Beaufort’s City Hall. That came naturally. She had been a newspaper reporter for 20 years in Williamsburg, Va. And because her mother was a city clerk, she was almost born at a City Council meeting when her mother went into labor early.

On Thursday afternoon, I asked Lutz how Beaufort is doing on the historic preservation that defines its economy and soul, special raccoon water bowls and all. What have been the wins and losses, and what does Beaufort need to do in the future?

Wins

Preservation. Some milestones include restoration of four homes in the Northwest Quadrant, one in the Old Commons neighborhood, the restoration and preservation of the Smalls Nash Cottage, and protection of properties like the Robert Smalls House and the Anchorage and the Oaks Plantation.

Prevention. A citizen uprising, with a big tip of the hat to the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, prevented a boutique hotel and other businesses from being built at the end of the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park on Bay Street.

Cooperation. Historic preservation was becoming less “the party of no,” Lutz said. It’s a controversial movement because it concerns land-use and development. People are told what they can and cannot do with their property. “Issues people get wrapped around the axle about,” Lutz said.

“In the last eight to 10 years, we have approached change in a more collegial way, trying to talk to people in advance of a project to see what we can do that is best for them and best for the historic district.”

Transparency. The city of Beaufort, with its Historic District Review Board that has one seat for the Historic Beaufort Foundation, has improved transparency in recent years, Lutz said. Town Council work sessions lay out issues publicly, and city meetings are streamed on Facebook, she said.

Revenue. About a quarter of the foundation’s income now comes from an unexpected windfall -- the will of author Francis Griswold, who wrote his 1939 novel, “Sea Island Lady,” in Beaufort. Also, a new Architects’ Tour has been a successful fundraiser.

Losses

Lost battles. Preservationists fought and lost a battle over a new building at 700 Bay St., at the foot of the Woods Memorial Bridge. “The architecture of it is not fitting,” Lutz said.

Zoning. In adopting form-based zoning called “The Beaufort Code,” the city left a lot of discretion to the city staff on project reviews that formerly could have had public input, Lutz said. Also, when the city adopted a 100-year Civic Master Plan in 2014, it rejected the foundation’s push to add “the Seven Integrities for Historic Preservation.”

Lost champions. “A lot of the old guard is gone,” Lutz said. “Just in the past year, we’ve lost Henry Chambers, Brantley Harvey, Neil Trask, Joe Mix ...”

Do’s for the next generation

Activism. “Pay attention,” Lutz said. “You see something that doesn’t belong and you say, ‘How did that happen?’ It’s because somebody wasn’t paying attention.”

Fix it up. “Anything can be restored,” Lutz said. A lot of people would have thought raccoons drinking from the open-air toilet meant the house should be torn down. Not in Beaufort. That building was bought by the foundation, stabilized, sold to the couple from Texas and beautifully restored.

Education. Home buyers and sellers need to be constantly educated on what it means to live in a historic district. You can’t build or alter a home to look like Fripp Island.

Think small. The antebellum mansions have a market, and, thanks to deep pockets, are being cared for, Lutz said. But there’s much more to do.

“We started as a foundation that used a revolving fund to buy, restore and re-sell properties,” Lutz said. “Today there are new tools for achieving those goals and our goal is to use those tools with other parties to bring about a restoration program in the Northwest Quadrant and Old Commons that complement the National Parks Service Reconstruction initiative.

“Everyone knows our antebellum story but it’s the 100 years in the postbellum period that needs protecting.”

Don’ts for the next generation

National status. Do not lose the National Historic Landmark District status that encompasses 300 acres and about 500 historic structures by letting people chip away at it.

Think small. “The district will die by a thousand cuts,” Lutz said. “Wrong window here, porch railings there. Things will add up to detract from the integrity of the district.

“The ‘little’ things are actually very big things.”

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