Historic Preservation has a nice ring to it. Like motherhood and apple pie, the fourth of July and community concerts. But, when is it just sloganeering? And, when is it real? Really real?
Although those questions were not actually posed during the 2006 Historic Preservation Forum April 26 at the George Washington Masonic Memorial, they were the unspoken message of the piped piper of true historic preservation, Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.
The first question posed to him after his presentation on what he and his City have been able to accomplish in not only preserving the past but also making that preservation serve today and the future was a cynical, “What really went on behind closed doors that enabled you to accomplish this?”
His answer was, “Nothing went on behind closed doors. It’s a matter of leadership and persuasion.” It’s also a matter of having the internal strength to persist against the odds, the cynics and naysayers for a belief in what can be accomplished with vision, persistence and a healthy degree of stubbornness.
Riley is recognized nationwide as one of the most visionary municipal government leaders in the nation. He is nationally recognized as the primary spokesperson on urban design that combines livability and historic preservation.
As Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille said in his introduction of Riley, “When he walks into a Conference of Mayors meeting it is magic. People want to touch him and get his advice.”
Morgan Delany, president, Historic Alexandria Foundation, prime sponsor of the event, noted. “Historic Preservation throughout the country is a joint partnership between public and private interests. And, the third oldest historic district to be established by any city in the nation is Alexandria.” Charleston was first in 1931, according to Delany.
The establishment and structure of Alexandria’s Board of Architectural Review was patterned after Charleston. This City’s Old and Historic District is now celebrating its 60th anniversary.
It predates the National Preservation Act which established the National Register of Historic Places by 20 years.
FIRST ELECTED MAYOR in 1975, Riley is now in his eighth term. Preceding his becoming mayor, he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives just one year after graduating from law school, according to Euille.
During his 31 year tenure, he has been responsible for a myriad transitions in buildings and neighborhoods throughout his city. “I come here today not to teach but to reinforce. We all need all the reinforcement we can get,” he told the audience filling the Memorial auditorium and the City Council seated before him.
“Alexandria is a beautiful example of preserving history. But, our challenge in this business is to keep from making mistakes,” he said.
In many instances, as proven through his slide presentation of Charleston accomplishments, Riley not only used his expertise and political acumen to further historical preservation but also to create affordable housing. He preserved and restored housing scheduled for demolition and created new housing that was not stereotype “projects,” as he put it.
“I was determined we could build attractive affordable housing. The Housing Authority wanted to build another project. I said no. We are not going to do that anymore,” Riley said. Instead he spread public housing throughout Charleston.
Riley likened historic preservation to preserving memories. “Just as we need the memories of our families, building need the memories of the past,” he insisted.
“If you let a corner lot go to the demolition ball the virus will spread. One more parking lot. The big challenge for cities is the downtown. The downtown is the part everybody owns,” Riley said.
“We must give people the opportunity to come into their city. We must understand the implications of what we are doing. The city is a part of us and we are part of the city,” he said.
To make his point he cited the story of one individual in Charleston named Clarence Hopkins who rode his bike to a certain spot in the City on the waterfront just to enjoy the peace and tranquillity. That spot became part of the rejuvenated waterfront of Charleston.
Prior to its dedication, Clarence suffered a debilitating stroke that left him unable to ride his bike to his favorite spot. On the day of dedication Riley had Clarence brought to the ceremony and gave him a front row seat. To Riley Clarence was the personification of what preservation is really all about.
The Historic Preservation Forum was the latest in a series of such citizen oriented discussions dealing with the overall concept of livability. Joining the Foundation in sponsorship were Alexandria City Council, Department of Planning and Zoning, Office of Historic Alexandria, Historic Alexandria Resource Commission, Alexandria Historical Restoration & Preservation Commission, Board of Architectural Review — Old & Historic District and Parker Gray, Alexandria Archeological Commission, and Old Town Civic Association.
Following a question and answer period there was a reception sponsored by the Foundation.