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.”