This is the story of how a quirky group of amateur builders, working organically and without a grand plan, achieved that most elusive of urban qualities: a sense of place. The setting is Charleston, S.C., in the mid-1980s. George Holt is a 26-year-old college dropout with an interest in old architecture and building but no experience. With two friends, Jerry Moran, a serving U.S. Air Force pilot, and Cheryl Roberts, who had been managing a large toy store, he founds Historic Renovations of Charleston, a construction company. George is the contractor and designer; Jerry has the building experience and an actual credit rating; and Cheryl takes care of the business side. They buy an old house that had been repossessed by the Veterans Administration, fix it up themselves, and live in it while they are doing the work. Their second house, a derelict, is a more ambitious project and requires jacking up the structure while building a new foundation and first floor. They keep the properties, rent them out, and look for more opportunities. That's how they start.
Renovating old houses was hardly an original idea in Charleston in the 1980s. Thanks to a dynamic new mayor, Joseph P. Riley Jr., a world-famous music festival, and an increase in tourism, Charleston was experiencing a small real estate boom. The city had a long history of historic preservation, but Mayor Riley had brought new energy to the conservation of its architectural heritage. The historic center of Charleston, unlike most southern cities, had escaped the ravages of 1950s urban renewal, and its beautiful antebellum houses had become a major cultural attraction, not only for tourists but for wealthy second-home buyers. The main building activity was in the venerable historic district, but a few adventurous souls, like George and his pals, were buying old houses in run-down neighborhoods farther north on the peninsula.
A Good Deal in a Rough Neighborhood
In 1991, George came upon a large lot on Saint Philip Street. The L-shaped property included four houses, all vacant: a large house on Saint Philip, a tiny masonry house behind it, and two derelict houses around the corner facing Cannon Street. Elliotborough was a rough neighborhood known mainly for open drug dealing and consisting of dilapidated houses and scores of vacant and boarded-up structures. “I thought it was a good deal, in spite of that,” George remembers. The Medical University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston were nearby, and they were a potential source of tenants. King Street, Charleston’s main shopping street, was only a block away, although this end of King was distinctly seedy, lined with pawnshops, thrift shops, and empty storefronts. It was only a matter of time, George reasoned, before the neighborhood revived. The lot cost $78,000, the company’s largest investment to date. As was common in Charleston, the lot was very deep—200 feet—so there was plenty of room for additional buildings. But that was in the future. “We didn’t have anything specific in mind,” says George. “At that point our plan was to fix up the old houses and rent them out.”
About two months after the sale, something unexpected happened: The large house on Saint Philip Street collapsed—it simply fell down. Fortunately, it was still unoccupied; George had been negotiating with a local theater company that wanted to rent it for rehearsal space. “It looked okay inside,” he recalls, “but the foundations turned out to be really bad.” As a replacement, George drew up a three-story structure—his first design—with a two-bedroom apartment on the first floor and a four-bedroom dwelling with a tall veranda above. While this was under construction, he renovated the little masonry house in the rear and an acquaintance bought it for about $80,000, which covered the initial investment.
The two boarded-up houses facing Cannon Street had been empty for a long time. The smaller one in the rear dated back to the early 19th century, but since it had been renovated in the 1930s, it did not require much work to turn it into rental apartments. “The front house on Cannon Street had been unoccupied for years when we bought it, and we discovered that it was being used as a squat and a shooting gallery by crack and heroin addicts,” George recalls. “We hired a hazard cleaning crew to clear out all the needles, waste, and debris, and converted it to a rental property.” Despite the rundown neighborhood, both rentals were successful. “Our tenants were mostly young downtown restaurant and bar workers who didn’t make the sort of money that’s typical today. They couldn’t even scrape together enough cash to make a security deposit, or pay a full month’s rent in advance, so we screened carefully and rented by the week.”
Byzantine Architecture Comes to Charleston
The back half of the lot on Saint Philip Street was empty. After a year, George, Cheryl, and Jerry decided that they should do something with the vacant land. It was time to build houses for themselves, one with apartments for George and Cheryl, and another one for Jerry. George was a Navy brat who had been born in Spain and grown up on various naval bases, including in Istanbul. He loved Byzantine architecture, and he based his house on an 11th-century domed church, the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora. Because he was the contractor as well as the designer, he was able to do unconventional things, but his use of recycled materials, of columns that were slightly out of plumb, and of a barely perceptible asymmetry, were not efforts at artificial aging but rather an attempt to incorporate what he saw as an essential quality of Byzantine architecture. He made the exterior of the house nondescript so that it did not seem out of place in the neighborhood—the magic was all on the inside. The entrance was an arcaded atrium with a swimming pool. “That was Cheryl’s idea,” says George. “She wanted a pool for exercise. I had designed an entrance court between our two apartments, so that seemed the best place to put it. She didn’t want the bother of cleaning leaves and debris, so I put a roof over it.” Jerry’s house was more conventional, two stories with stepped gables and an attic with dormers; small, but with the luxury of a walled garden.
George painted the exteriors of the stuccoed houses different colors: the house on Saint Philip Street was pink, Jerry’s was adobe-colored, and his own was white. The colors and the walls and arched gateways enclosing the backyards recalled a Mediterranean village. The walls were not decorative—they were there for security. After they moved in, George and Jerry discovered that conditions in the neighborhood were much worse than anything they had experienced elsewhere. The vacant houses had attracted a flourishing drug trade, crime was widespread, and drive-by shootings a regular occurrence. George and Jerry installed floodlights. When that didn’t work they took other measures. “We reckoned that if we could discourage the drug buyers, who were chiefly college students who lived elsewhere, that would disrupt the drug trade,” George explains. At that time, Charleston police officers were allowed to moonlight in their off-duty hours as security monitors in stores and bars. “We hired the officers for two or three late-night shifts a week at random times to ensure a lack of predictability, and asked them to park their squad cars out front, on the street. Things would get really quiet during those times.” Eventually, the drug buyers stayed away, and the dealers, who were likewise not from the neighborhood, took their business elsewhere.
The house immediately behind Jerry and George’s homes was another source of aggravation. The broken-down duplex contained an illegal bar where drug dealing was rampant, and the parking lot was the site of nightly fights and occasional shootings. George and Jerry spoke to the absentee owner who indicated that he was willing to sell. The problem was the price, almost twice as much as George and Jerry had paid for the first lot. They needed an outside investor and George approached his brother Bob, who was interested in building a house for himself. Pooling their resources, they bought the lot, evicted the tenants, and tore down the duplex. Bob reserved the back part of the lot for his own house. That left space on the property for four small houses. The architectural style of the four houses was unremarkable: gable roofs, clapboard siding, traditional details. The exteriors were painted different colors—yellow, green, aquamarine, plum; Bob’s house was white. To provide access for parking, George laid out a narrow lane down one side of the lot. Because Jerry’s sister, Mary Turner, was the first resident, they asked her to name the lane, and being of Irish descent she settled on Tully Alley.
When a lot next door to the alley came on the market in 1998, despite the high asking price, they made an offer. Bob bought the back third of the new lot that adjoined his property, which allowed him to enlarge his garden and add a guesthouse. There was space remaining on the lot to build two additional houses. The first was rather conventional: a pretty pastel-pink cottage with shuttered windows and an airy second-floor veranda. The second house was different. “I wanted to have some fun,” George says. He designed a striking entrance porch with Moorish pointed arches and square columns topped by low-relief capitals. The porch was cast in concrete in a single pour using elaborate sculpted molds; the balcony above included a balustrade with concrete grilles and ornamental urns. The stucco walls of the house were painted with an orange wash the color of marigolds. The interior was similarly exotic. George worked with a team of cabinetmakers, who paneled the walls in black walnut. The vaulted living room had a massive fireplace decorated with a relief pattern of swirling acanthus leaves that George had seen in a Byzantine church.
A Gamble That Paid Off
George and Jerry were turning into experienced developers. A decade after they had bought the first lot on Saint Philip Street, the neighborhood had slowly improved. Vacant houses were renovated, abandoned corner stores were turned into coffee shops, bakeries, and restaurants, boutiques popped up here and there. In the process, real estate values and rents went up. One of the small houses on Tully Alley that had sold for $220,000 in 1995 was resold six years later for more than twice as much. As for the Moorish house, it fetched the princely sum of $595,000. Their gamble was paying off.
In 2000, shortly after George finished the Moorish house, he was approached by the owners of the property immediately adjacent to the pink house on Saint Philip Street. The Sunsetter Elks Lodge was a fraternal order that used the old house as a social club. George recalls the members well: “The Sunsetters were a fun group of older black men who had boisterous weekly outdoor fish fries with often more than a hundred people. I was invited to hang out and did so on a few occasions. There was a clubhouse-type bar and grill for members in a series of cobbled together additions. They only used the ground floor of the house due to years of a dilapidated roof letting water into the building. The place was in bad shape.”
The lodge was interested in relocating, not only because of the poor condition of its building—and insufficient parking—but chiefly because most of its members had moved out of downtown Charleston. If the Sunsetters could sell the old house they could buy a newer building in the suburbs of North Charleston, close to where the majority of their members now lived. The lodge had acquired the old house on Saint Philip Street in the early 1980s for $24,000; two decades later, thanks in large part to George and Jerry’s efforts, the property was worth considerably more: the asking price was $280,000—the Sunsetters eventually settled for $240,000. “That was three times as much as we paid for our first property,” George said, “but it was the last piece we could buy, and the deep lot had space for as many as three additional houses.” The new lot was also wide enough to accommodate a narrow lane that would provide car access all the way back to George’s house; they called the lane Charles Street. Jerry bought the property and immediately resold the rear lot to George and the front house and one building lot to Bob.
Jerry kept the center lot for himself. He had decided to build a new house. “My first house was the equivalent of a starter home,” he explained. “I wanted more space as well as income-generating apartments.” George designed a U-shaped two-story building resembling a Roman villa with a second-floor terrace, sitting on top of three small guest apartments and a carport. A roof deck provided splendid views across the city. It was not a shy building. The exterior was painted pink and ochre with green shutters. A giant order of Tuscan columns supported an architrave across the face of the raised terrace.
The sort of inner-block development that George, Cheryl, and Jerry were engaged in was not unusual in Charleston. Space on the peninsula had always been in short supply, and the city had a long tradition of small outbuildings—slave quarters, carriage houses, artisans’ dwellings. The modern zoning code encouraged what city planners call infill development—adding dwelling units to the rear of lots to increase neighborhood density. The zoning along Saint Philip Street, for example, allowed a maximum of 35 percent coverage—that is, buildings could occupy up to 35 percent of the ground area. That meant that a typical deep lot could accommodate as many as three or four additional houses—as long as they were small. The exact number was dictated largely by the city’s parking requirements: two car spots for each free-standing house, one-and-half for each rented apartment. Tully Alley had seven houses; Charles Street had five houses with space for two more. The lots were combined into a single property, which was owned in condominium. The advantage was that all the open space, whether it was a lane, a parking spot, or a private garden, was counted together. The nature of the private outdoor spaces varied; some houses had courtyards or walled gardens, others made do with a veranda or a porch.
The Features of Organic Growth
Tully Alley and Charles Street, which comprise almost an acre, did not develop according to a master plan. Like Topsy, they just grow’d. This seemingly haphazard way of building contributed to the impression of an old established place. Speculating about the beauty of old towns, the celebrated art historian E.H. Gombrich wrote: “The very conditions of slow and unplanned growth may sometimes be productive of qualities that are hard to imitate by deliberate planning.” Gombrich called this quality organic.
The architect and theorist Christopher Alexander uses the same term to describe beautiful old towns in his 1987 book A New Theory of Urban Design: “This feeling of ‘organicness,’ is not a vague feeling of relationship with biological forms. It is not an analogy. It is instead, an accurate vision of a specific structural quality which these old towns had … and have. Namely: Each of these towns grew as a whole, under its own laws of wholeness. … and we can feel this wholeness, not only at the largest scale, but in every detail: in the restaurants, in the sidewalks, in the houses, shops, markets, roads, parks, gardens, and walls. Even in the balconies and ornaments.”
First, Alexander writes, organic urban growth is piecemeal, occurring bit by bit. This is certainly the case with George, Cheryl, and Jerry’s project, which was built over more than a decade. The parts are not uniform. George, Jerry, and Bob’s houses are the largest, the old masonry house on Charles Street is the smallest, and there are many sizes in between. Since the houses were not all constructed at the same time—and some were built a long time ago—there is the same pleasant variety that we take for granted in old towns, but which is missing in brand-new developments, whether they are public housing projects or upscale planned communities.
Second, according to Alexander, organic growth is unpredictable—that is, the end result is not necessarily apparent at the beginning. The earliest houses on Tully Alley are straightforward, almost generic—pitched roofs, dormers, balconies—and the two unprepossessing houses that face Saint Philip Street are almost identical, except that one is painted plum and the other aquamarine. George’s self-effacing house is almost invisible; on the other hand, the theatrical Moorish house and Jerry’s Roman villa stand out like hothouse flowers. There is a similar variety in the nature of the private outdoor spaces: a mixture of porches, balconies, verandas, terraces, and walled gardens. The front doors are carefully located, generally—but not always—to create intimate semipublic spaces in front of the house. Houses that face the street line up with their neighbors, whereas houses inside the block face different directions. As in a medieval European town, you are never quite sure what you will find around the corner.
Alexander’s third organic feature concerns coherence: piecemeal growth should not result in a jumbled free-for-all, the fragments should adhere and form a harmonious whole. Coherence contributes to what architects call a sense of place. Not all coherence is the same, however. A conventional parking lot, for example, is coherent, but it is a mechanical sort of coherence: the entire surface covered in asphalt, the regular white lines of the parking stalls, the uniform lighting fixtures. One parking lot looks pretty much like another. The parking in Tully Alley and Charles Street is different: cars are sometimes parked in front of houses, sometimes alongside a lane, sometimes in an auto court, and sometimes under a covered carport. The lanes are paved with old bricks dug up on the site, and some of the parking spots are paved. The parking court outside Bob’s house is paved with stone slabs, while the parking lot in front of the pink house is gravel, the stalls demarcated by thin stone strips. While an asphalt parking lot appears orderly, the parking on Tully Alley and Charles Street represents a richer order—of different textures, materials, and scales.
Tully Alley contains bollards to protect exposed building corners from being damaged by carelessly driven vehicles. Such devices are commonly steel pipes painted safety orange; in other words, they are eyesores. On Tully Alley they are square masonry piers topped by slightly projecting imposts made of flat tiles; at the corners of the Moorish house the imposts are pyramidal. Not much of a difference, just enough to signal that somebody cared. Which is Alexander’s fourth and final feature: an organic place must be “full of feeling.” He is referring to the impression that a place has been thoughtfully made, that it has a human imprint. That is something that Tully Alley—like so much of the old city of Charleston—most certainly demonstrates.
This essay was adapted from Witold Rybczynski’s most recent book, Charleston Fancy: Little Houses & Big Dreams in the Holy City, which is published by Yale University Press.