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Charleston Seeks UN World Heritage Designation

Charleston Seeks UN World Heritage Designation

Charleston is seeking World Heritage status from the United Nations – a designation for sites deemed important to all of humankind that include, among others, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Giza and the Grand Canyon.

The Historic Charleston Foundation this month joined the city and the group of businesses working for the designation in developing an application highlighting a collection of almost 40 places of worship and public buildings in the city’s historic district.

The Charleston World Heritage Coalition will craft the application expected to run several hundred pages and which must be submitted to the National Park Service by January of 2016.

After a year, during which applications are often revised or polished, the Park Service can then send it on to the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

That group reviews the application before it can be sent on to the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, which votes annually on World Heritage applications.

Charleston could be designated a World Heritage site in 2018, if all goes without a hitch, said Thomas Aspinwall, the coalition’s executive director.

There are 981 heritage sites worldwide, but only 21 in the United States. None of U.S. sites are historic districts and there are no sites in South Carolina.

The United Nation’s agency accepts World Trust nominations for both natural and cultural sites based on several criteria. One of them is “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history.”

“That is the one that is really applicable to Charleston,” Aspinwall told the AP Monday. “We have the accumulation of architecture that tells the story of American architecture over several hundred years but, as well, the cultures that built them.”

Researching and compiling the application is expected to cost about $1 million. But supporters say the designation will be worth it.

In addition to the civic pride of being designated one of the most significant places in the world, supporters say the label would provide a brand that will help draw visitors, attract businesses and mean preferential consideration for preservation and other grants from public and private foundations.

The designation could also forge new partnerships for the preservation of the city founded in 1670.During the months of preparing the application, Aspinwall expects new research will provide more details about historic buildings and the roles they played both in local and national history.”

We feel Charleston has the collection of buildings needed for this nomination process and we’re very hopeful the city will receive this designation which is so highly sought after and is such an extraordinary designation,” said Kitty Robinson, the president and CEO of the Historic Charleston Foundation.

The foundation is joining the effort to both provide financial resources and work to enlist other preservation groups.Six years ago, the foundation helped Charleston update its 1974 preservation plan. At the time, it was suggested Charleston move toward seeking a World Heritage designation.

Post and Courier

Local Value to the World

Local Value to the World

So why would the world’s No. 1 tourist destination, which regularly earns recognition for everything from its courtesy, romance and restaurants to its outdoor activities and arts, need another accolade? Because Charleston is much more than all that. Being designated as a World Heritage Site would recognize the city’s outstanding universal value.

A recently formed Charleston World Heritage Coalition is working toward applying for the honor based on some of the city’s most notable government, institutional and church buildings. The buildings tell the story of architectural styles spanning four centuries, early American architects, skilled slave craftsmen, early philanthropy and early inclusivity for immigrants and religious refugees.

And by the time the necessary and extensive research is completed, the buildings will have more stories to tell about their history and the city’s connections to the wider world.

The process is exacting and the odds of winning the designation are small. The last four applications by the United Kingdom to inscribe sites on the list all failed.

But the coalition here, the result of local businessman Stephen Ziff donating enough money to get the process rolling, is enthusiastic.

One advantage this application would have is that World Heritage Sites must have preservation plans. Charleston’s commitment to preservation is nothing new, and is backed by law. The Board of Architectural Review, for example.

At present, the World Heritage list includes 981 places of cultural or natural importance. Canada and Mexico both have cities with World Heritage Site designation, but not the United States. Grand Canyon National Park, Independence Hall, Everglades National Park, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, yes. But no city. Not yet.

If the local effort succeeds, expect the tourist industry to reflect the victory. Some travelers, including Mr. Ziff, make it a point to seek out World Heritage Sites while traveling.

But other sites have enjoyed additional benefits. Businesses have shown an interest in visiting and locating nearby. The economy has improved. And the community’s pride has grown.

While Charleston has safeguards, World Heritage Sites also are held to high standards. Dresden in Germany was deleted from the list in 2009 because of a bridge that was judged to have undermined its universal value.

The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage program has been asked to intervene in Edinburgh, Scotland, where a developer plans to build hotels near the famous Royal Mile. The Old and New towns of Edinburgh are a World Heritage Site.

Some will question whether seeking the designation is worth the effort and expense — up to $1 million. What difference does it make for residents?

But those same people will agree that Charleston is an extraordinary place and its public buildings tell an important story. It would make a splendid addition to the list of World Heritage Sites.

Is Charleston Ready For World Heritage Status?

Is Charleston Ready For World Heritage Status?

Is Charleston ready for UNESCO status? Should Charleston be recognized as one of the world’s great heritage sites? Of course it should, but the process isn’t up to me.

In fact, getting listed as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site underscores a reality about preservation on a large scale: It’s as much political as it is historical. No other urban American historic district has been recognized in part because of the gnarly politics: Congress passed a law three decades ago saying private property owners must give written consent to be included in a UNESCO World Heritage site. And getting 100 percent agreement among dozens or hundreds of property owners sounds like a fool’s errand. (Savannah tried but couldn’t pull it off).

There are currently almost 1,000 World Heritage Sites in 160 countries, but only 21 are found in the United States. And only eight of those are architectural sites, such as Monticello, the University of Virginia, the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and Mesa Verde National Park. The rest are natural wonders like the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the Everglades, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.

Getting listed as a World Heritage Site is a big deal. It’s the highest recognition possible for a historic site because it shows it’s important in a global sense. Preserving these sites is still left to the respective countries, and the United Nations would seek only to mobilize world opinion if it were to conclude a site faced a risk to its integrity.

The city of Charleston’s 2008 preservation plan recommended pursuing the World Heritage designation for part of the southern peninsula, and businessman Stephen Ziff recently donated enough money to kick-start the effort. Ziff came across his first World Heritage Site while traveling about 30 years ago, and he’s made a point to seek them out ever since, says Tom Aspinwall, director of the newly formed Charleston World Heritage Coalition. “He (Ziff) has either inadvertently or intentionally introduced himself to people all over the world who have explained what the designation has meant to their cities,” Aspinwall says. “It’s been great for community pride … and it’s been good for business in ways not affiliated with tourism. That’s a huge part of what motivated him.”

 Things are at an early stage: Aspinwall says the coalition is reaching out to potential partners and trying to figure what properties and sites to include in the nomination. There probably won’t be any that are privately owned, except for churches. The rest likely will be government or nonprofit buildings. The district seems certain to involve a chunk of Charleston’s Civic Center, the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets more widely known as the Four Corners of Law.

Actually, Charleston County has another historic site that some have argued is worthy of becoming a World Heritage Site. That site is Fig Island, a highly intact set of three Native American middens about 3,000 to 4,000 years old in the county’s southern marshes, but no one seems to be working on that application at this time. And that may be because it takes a lot of work. Those assembling the application must create a narrative as to why the buildings and public spaces within the site are of world significance. They must research and analyze who designed and built the buildings, who has used them and how the structures have evolved. And they must create a management plan that shows that the site’s universally important aspects will be preserved. Obviously, the city’s zoning, its Board of Architectural Review, multiple historic easements and the existence of the Charleston’s National Landmark Historic District would seem to give them a big leg up here.

In the case of Charleston’s civic heart, the buildings reflect a progression of architectural styles spanning four centuries, relate to the importance of early American architects and skilled slave craftsmen, reflect the city’s early philanthropy and inclusivity for immigrants and religious refugees. But the narrative, and the exact buildings and boundaries and partners, are very much to be determined. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has signed on, and hopefully others will soon. Those pursuing Charleston’s application hope to submit something within three years and at a total cost of less than $1 million. But their hope is the process of doing the research will uncover new connections between the city and the wider world.

“What we can guarantee is this: Charleston will be a richer place from having started this process,” Aspinwall says. “We will unearth new stories about our history, we will continue to teach our students of these stories and involve them in the educational benefits of undertakings like this.”

-Robert Behre

Post and Courier