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Fate of beloved historic landmark hangs in the balance

By Patra Taylor

In mid-December 2023, the Charleston Historic Foundation announced its plans to implement new strategies to guide the 77-year-old preservation organization into the future. Although foundation president and chief operating officer Winslow Hastie assured the public that the foundation’s core purpose would remain the same — to advocate for place, culture and communities that are essential to the extraordinary character of Charleston and the Lowcountry — a few twists in the organization’s plans landed like lead balloons in holiday gatherings across the Lowcountry, large and small.

            In the first days after the announcement became public due to a release of official documents via our Carolina Digital Daily, emotions ran high over the foundation’s plan to sell off the National Russell House Museum, a move the organization insists will allow it to turn its attention to more of what is believes are the real issues of the day. Many of the foundation’s supporters were having none of it. As glasses were clinked and holiday fare consumed, Charlestonians seized the remaining opportunities to reminisce about their first childhood visits to the great house at the heart of the city’s historic district. The Nathaniel Russell House Museum serves as a living classroom for students of all ages, implanting the human quality of preservation-mindedness into the DNA of our community. There is an active archeological dig still underway in the kitchen house.

            Within hours of the news breaking, the community spoke out and the Historic Charleston Foundation listened (exactly what they heard would soon become the next topic of conversation in the city’s dynamic social scene). According to a follow-up email of December 19 sent by Hastie:  “… we have heard many passionate voices from the community and beyond, expressing their deep love for the museum and its sincere wish for the property to remain in the public trust.” Then came the bombshell:  “A deep analysis of the broad range of our work, from museums to advocacy to revolving fund programs, showed us clearly that the community needs our increased effort to resist the destructive forces of over-tourism, over-development, gentrification and flood[ing], as it has long been the Foundation’s calling to help tackle these immense challenges.” In other words, its high-minded agenda is the only way forward.


The Nathanial Russell House at 51 Meeting St. in Charleston circa 1933. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

            As the foundation’s board and administration hunkered down in their palatial digs overlooking Charleston Harbor to wait out the public relations firestorm it had trigged, straight ahead remained 12 more glorious days of holiday festivities, 288 more hours for Charlestonians to gather, discuss and debate the pros and cons of the organization’s plan forward. The time allowed for high emotions to turn into action plans, and a synthesizing of ideas surrounding not only the sale of the Nathaniel Russell House, but the foundation’s plan as a whole.

Much speculation as to why the foundation chose to wash its hands of a national treasure drove many thoughtful conversations at this time. As it turns out, the devil may very well be the details:  According to an editorial penned by Hastie and board chair Anne Blessing, they reiterated that the foundation plan to focus its historic preservation expertise on mitigating flooding and storms, tackling the over-tourism in the fragile peninsular historic district, and work to replace the current vision for the region’s growth with a positive one.

Some proclaimed that for nearly eight decades the organization had united people through its preservation advocacy but was now dividing people with what some believed to be a “woke” agenda that pits climate change warriors against climate change sceptics, social justice advocates against constitutionalists and the grand visions of the few against the realities of the many. Social media was filled with stories of upset families who had donated priceless family treasures for the collection at the museum and wondered what would happen to items such as Thomas Elf furniture. A few have consulted legal counsel to see if they can get donated items returned. Then came the big question:  Is Historic Charleston Foundation divesting itself the Nathaniel Russell House Museum because it was built by a notorious slave trader?

There, I said it.

For the record, a first-time visitor to the Nathaniel Russell House Museum can’t help but be struck by the opulence of the 19th century neoclassical house. (The foundation meticulously restored this mansion to its last details.) But they are awed by its raw beauty.

The Nathaniel Russell House is clearly a historic moment frozen in amber, a recollection of all who lived there and, most importantly, a lasting tribute to the enslaved hands who built it, who endured despite their horrific human condition to leave a lasting mark on our history.

For many, the house is a place of healing, thanks to the research and teachings developed by the foundation. Therein lies the nobleness of its mission, not in climate change, social justice and vision development. Therein lies preservation and preservation advocacy in our unity.

Certainly, the board and administration had to know the backlash from the community would be great. They must have considered the sense of betrayal that would be felt by the preservation community, that they were playing a zero-sum game. They had to know that a portion of their funding would follow the house when it sold, even as other financial supporter and volunteers fell away.

Early on, Hastie stated the move to sell the museum house had nothing to do with money. But it’s always about the money. Where is the money to fund their new agenda going to come from? It’s the question inquiring minds want answered sooner rather than later.

The plan to sell the Nathaniel Russell House Museum developed behind closed doors during the course of the last year was a betrayal of the public trust, according to the vast majority of those with whom I have spoken and those who have written or called us. The email letter of December 19 reiterating their plan to move forward despite the public outcry, reinforced that they were marching forward with the sale come hell or high water.

As the chessboard is set and the next moves of both the Historic Charleston Foundation and the concerned public are thought out, the bumper stickers of “Hell no, Winslow!” have erupted like a sewer drain on The Battery during a king tide. Meanwhile, serious players in Charleston culture and business are not avoiding the HCF situation; rather, we expect more twists and turns in the days and weeks ahead, as locals take stock of what groups they can trust to take of our historic treasures.

 

            A long-time contributor and former managing editor of the Charleston Mercury, Patra Taylor is the author of One Christmas, a novel set during the Great Depression. Her second novel, Edge of Summer, is slated for release this autumn. She is also working on a biography about the life and times of Sidi Limehouse. She may be reached at patra@patrataylor.net.

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