October 29, 1997
Redesign the judicial center's King Street facade

Last week, at a community meeting, Alice Tellis Critikos, who doesn’t like to speak in public, asked that the proposed Charleston County Judicial Center be re-designed on its King Street elevation. She asked the architects and county officials, whose specialist jargon can be intimidating, that the King Street facade be humanized rather than constructed in an alienating form.

She asked that the face of the Judicial Center on King Street be made to relate to the historic character which is being revived up and down the thoroughfare, but is sadly missing on the block between Queen and Broad. She asked that the design of the Judicial Center help heal the urban wound inflicted by the County Parking Garage at the corner of Queen. She asked that the new building have a public entrance on King Street rather than acting as a barrier that keeps people out.

No matter how uncomfortable she might have felt, as a member of the family that restored the Tellis Pharmacy building with its Victorian shopfront and eye-catching historic neon sign, Alice Tellis Critikos had a moral right to ask that the county do its fair share in making Charleston a better place. Each conscientious property owner in the city has earned that privilege.

After all, every person who earns a dollar from tourism-related economic activity is indebted to the people who have preserved the city. Every citizen whose daily life is enriched by the charm and grace around them, owes a “thank you” to their neighbors.

And every civil servant who draws their wage from the public coffer—whose largesse would be greatly diminished were the historic city not a magnet for visitors from around the world—has an ethical responsibility not to undermine the people who sustain the city’s heritage from out of their own pockets.

This moral debt to the owners of historic properties is recognized around the world. In France, Italy, the Netherlands, and numerous other nations, governments give substantial financial help to private owners maintaining historic buildings.

The purpose of such efforts is to balance social equity, because landmark designations sometimes deny the most profitable use of property, because the careful maintenance of older buildings is frequently more expensive than normal upkeep, and because societies profit from the perpetuation of the evidence of human history and accomplishment. In other words, in other places, society shares the costs, because society shares the benefits.

In the United States, financial help for the owners of historic buildings is scarce. We expect our neighbors to maintain our heritage, at their expense, for the benefit of the rest of us. Even if this is not fair, Alice Tellis Critikos isn’t complaining. Like many other Charlestonians who treat their properties lovingly, she believes that as a member of the community, she is responsible to behave in a neighborly fashion. She is hurt whenher government, spending her tax dollars, behaves rudely in return.

The design of the Judicial Center on King Street is a slap in the face. For when the building’s designers were asked by the Charleston community to fix the damage that the first proposal was doing to the streetscape on Broad, the problem was properly remedied. Thus, the current proposal is reduced in height and visibility and fills in an empty hole on Broad Street with an historically appropriate infill facade. Why is the same sensitivity to urban design, historic preservation, architectural aesthetics, and city planning not being applied on King Street?

Many citizen groups and several members of the Board of Architectural Review expressed equal if not more dismay at the sterility of the first design for the King Street facade. With the addition of a few small shopfronts and a public entrance, the Judicial Center will become an asset rather than a liability on King Street. It is unreasonable when the county can’t find a little space for civility and good neighborliness out of 165,000 square feet of interior area.

As a former landmarks commissioner in New York, am I witnessing a familiar cynical ploy? Are Charlestonians being asked to accept the proposition that the remedy of 75% of the proposal’s harm to the urban fabric is reasonable enough in an imperfect world?

At a public meeting, Alice Tellis Critikos asked if there was an entrance to the Judicial Center on King because she knew that the life of a street withers without people. She was told, “No, not unless you’re a prisoner.” When she observed that this facade would not have a “single entrance or exit for life to walk through,” she was informed: “If I’m in New York and I want to get into the NY Public Library, I can only get into it from one place on Fifth Avenue.” (Which is not entirely so, since there is another public entrance on 42nd Street.)

But, Alice Tellis Critikos said a simple truth in reply, “This is Charleston! It’s a very small place!” Small enough for people to know their neighbor’s names and to greet visitors with hospitality instead of wariness, but not so small a community that it’s citizens can’t tell a helping hand from a punch in the nose.

The proposal for the new Judicial Center should be re-designed until it ceases to do damage to the extraordinary cityscape that generations of civic-minded Charlestonians have nurtured. On behalf of the city, the Board of Architectural Review has the moral standing to insist that the Judicial Center  become a good neighbor on all its street facades. As an unpaid steward of the historic patrimony, Alice Tellis Critikos has the right to ask for fair dealing from the people her taxes employ.

Tung, a New York architect, author and preservationist, is writing a book tentatively titled "Preserving the World's Great Cities."