Preserving Tradition: A Critical Assessment of the Preservation of Charleston Cottages in Charleston, South Carolina

Historic Preservation Thesis

Jason Crowley

Andrew Dolkart, advisor

Charleston Cottages, often referred to as Freedman’s Cottages (due to the large numbers of newly freed African Americans who supposedly inhabited the cottages after the end of the Civil War) are a small uniquely-Charleston vernacular building type.  The typical size being less than 1,200 square feet, Charleston Cottages are one room wide and two or three rooms deep. The cottages are often considered functionally insufficient by modern American cultural standards.  Due to their small size, location in economically depressed neighborhoods, and lack of proper documentation and protective preservation ordinances, Charleston Cottages are continuously being demolished due to neglect and redevelopment. Along with demolition, unsympathetic and improper renovations are removing significant architectural features and overwhelming the massing of the historic structures with out-of-scale additions.

This thesis assessed the architectural and cultural significance of Charleston Cottages, providing a critique of current policies and preservation programs in Charleston that affect preservation of the threatened building type.  The policies and programs advocating the preservation of shotgun cottages in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana were utilized as a comparative case study. The case study was used as tool to find examples of how the vernacular building type of similar scale and age has been documented and promoted as significant to the development of a city.

Further, this thesis explored how the City of Charleston’s Department of Design, Development, and Preservation, local preservation groups, and neighborhood associations can reassess and refocus their existing programs and policies in order to better protect the threatened resource. Along with this analysis, the thesis concluded with a plan for the establishment of a local organization, Friends of Charleston Cottages. The friends group acted as advocates for the advancement of documentation and research of the building type, a center for outreach and education of programs for homeowners, and a mediator of discussion regarding the preservation of Charleston Cottages by the various preservation stakeholders.