Glenn Keyes, AIA, is a preservation architect based in Charleston, S.C., who has consulted with communities affected by hurricanes, including Hugo in 1989 and Katrina in 2005. He is a former staff architect for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and a current adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Since 1986, he has restored more than 150 churches, commercial buildings, museums, and houses in Charleston.
Charleston underwent a major change in its approach to preservation after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The requirements for buildings, reflected in the codes, reinterpreted preservation in the way we treat windows, roofing, and seismic retrofits. Codes required us to tie down roof structures when possible in historic rehabilitations and to protect window openings. The earthquake of 1886 was also a pivotal moment—and the subsequent reconstruction gave us a lot of the buildings we seek to protect today—but we’re still on a fault line and continue to have tremors. So, with our historic buildings, we do what we can.
Take the Charleston County Courthouse, completed in 1792, which had been gutted seven times in its history. After Hugo, the county asked us to seismically retrofit the building as part of a major restoration. Of course, by that time the interior was not considered historic—having been gutted so many times—so we gave it a concrete-and-steel-framed structure (recessed into the 32-inch-thick masonry walls) to comply with the county’s request. We then reconstructed a period interior based on research and the investigation of the existing physical conditions.
There is always a desire to put things back to the way they were as quickly as possible after a disaster, and I think that’s done to the detriment of buildings sometimes. Scrambling to replace a roof quickly isn’t always the best idea until you’ve had a chance to assess the situation. The roofs needed to be dried in quickly, but people often hired the first roofer that knocked on the door. Since that time, we have replaced many expensive slate and metal roofs that were installed improperly after Hugo hit. So a measured approach is always best in a disaster recovery situation. Charleston’s Board of Architecture Review was great about material requirements after the hurricane. It was tempting for the city to say, “OK, you can put on an asphalt shingle roof.” Instead, it said, “If you had a slate roof, you have to put a slate roof back on,” thus protecting the historic integrity of the city’s architecture.
There is a future for architects trained in preservation. There has been so much research on historic materials and methods done on so many successful preservation projects completed over the last 30 years. As architects, it’s a great time to be involved in a growing field. —As told to William Richards