Vernacular Is Beautiful—If We Would Just Allow It

1280px BroadStreetCharleston

The oldest city in the Deep South is centered on a liver-shaped peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers in the South Carolina Lowcountry, about halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and the vacation magnet of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Charleston.

Unlike Boston and New York, and more like the later Philadelphia and Savannah, Charleston was a planned city, with a surveyor laying out a grid plan in 1670, which was gradually realized over the next decade. Its major feature was that blocks could be very large—up to 600 feet on a side, according to Witold Rybczynski in his book Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City.

These blocks, combined with the hot and humid climate, contributed to a unique vernacular style of development in the city: the “single house” on little alleys and laneways accessing the block interiors. Usually two stories with pitched roofs, the most unique feature of the single house is that what looks like the front door opens onto a porch or veranda, which is also on two floors, a design that helps create cross ventilation, according to Rybczynski.

Like houses in Tokyo, the narrow, single houses are tightly packed at the street, even if they extend back into the lot. They often feature elements like gardens in the side yards and trees for added shade. They manage to create an active and diverse streetscape while still allowing for the houses to be detached.

The city initially grew prosperous off of the slave trade, as it was one of the main ports of entry of enslaved Africans into what would become the United States. Even after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, Charleston played a key role in moving enslaved people from part of the country to another, the smuggling of slaves into the country, and the export of the products of slave labor: chiefly cotton, rice, and indigo.

In the 20th century, however, Charleston experienced suburbanization and the United States military built several facilities in the area—Army, Navy, and Air Force units were based there, now combined in Joint Base Charleston—and private industries set up operations in outlying areas like North Charleston and Goose Creek. Highways like Interstate 26 and U.S. 17 bisected the city, but avoided the historic core. Still, like many cities in the time, the population of inner neighborhoods fell as people moved to the suburbs.

Many older neighborhoods lost population and land value, resulting in a number of vacant buildings and homes. As the inner city’s fortunes rose again, people began buying these inexpensive homes, renovating them and selling them for a profit. Soon, they noticed the demand for traditional houses and began using the lot interiors to do infill projects in the traditional style.

One of these developers is Vince Graham, whose walkable, traditional developments with his company, Loci, bring together a deep understanding of place and respect for the vernacular architecture. Graham’s been working on development like this since 1991, when he did a project called Newpoint, on Lady Island near Beaufort, to the southwest of Charleston.

Graham’s projects, like Morris Square in Charleston and I’On and Earl’s Court in Mount Pleasant are all but indistinguishable from historic buildings, featuring narrow streets and high lot coverages not often seen nowadays, even in new projects in historic districts.

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