May 28, 2018
Brittany LaVelle Tulla and Historic Charleston
What do you think it takes for a historic location to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site? This week’s guest, Brittany LaVelle Tulla, thinks that her home and her passion, Charleston, South Carolina, has what it takes. Join Nick as he and Brittany talk all things historic preservation in one of the most famous historic towns in the country, including Brittany’s own business as an architectural historian, her work with the Charleston Young Preservationists, and the dynamic and unique challenges facing a town that many see as a total preservation success. This is PreserveCast!
[Stephen Israel] What do you think it takes for a historic location to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site? This week’s guest, Brittany LaVelle Tulla, thinks that her home and her passion, Charleston, South Carolina, has what it takes. Join Nick as he and Brittney talk all things historic preservation in one of the most famous historic towns in the country, including Britney’s own business as an architectural historian, her work with the Charleston Young Preservationist, and the dynamic and unique challenges facing a town that many see as a total preservation success. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined by Brittany LaVelle Tulla who is the proprietor and lead architectural historian of historic research firm BVL Historic Preservation Research, which is headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina. She also serves as an adjunct professor in the Department of Historic Preservation and Community Planning at the College of Charleston. Brittany leads the Charleston World Heritage Coalition, a non-profit organization dedicated to gaining world heritage recognition for historic resources in Charleston and also chairs the Young Preservationists of Charleston. She currently serves on the Town of Mount Pleasant Historical Commission and the board of the Preservation Society of Charleston’s Charleston Heritage Symposium. Brittany was recently named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 40 Under 40, People Saving Places in 2018 and she holds a Master’s of Science degree in historic preservation from a College of Charleston in Clemson University. Brittany, it is a pleasure to have you with us here today on PreserveCast.
[Brittany LaVelle Tulla] Thank you, Nick. Thank you so much for having me.
[NR] So you work on a lot of really cool different topics. We’re looking forward to talking with you about these things and how you do your work and all the different things that you’re working on. But before we get there, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, what was your path to preservation, where’d you grow up, and how did you choose this career?
[BLT] Sure. Well, first and foremost, I am a Jersey girl living in Charleston, South Carolina. So I was not born in the South, but I feel like I have this kind of subconscious attraction to the South. And so it kind of took me a long time. I went to Elon University in North Carolina for a degree in communications, which is, obviously, not something that I am practicing now. Although, I use communications, of course, in my everyday life. But, it was really in school at Elon that I discovered what I truly wanted to do.
Growing up in New Jersey, close to, of course, Manhattan, I truly believe that the state of New Jersey has some of the best turn-of-the-century architecture out there. And the town that I come from, called Manasquan, New Jersey, was a Victorian seaside village as was Spring Lake and Sea Girt. And I think growing up around that, I created this kind of love and passion for beautiful architecture. But I went to school at Elon University for communications and I felt kind of uninspired by my Communications major if I can admit that. And I started taking kind of whacky classes. You know, I took Italian opera, I started taking a lot of art history course, and it really was the kind of art history that brought me into historic preservation. The architecture of cathedrals and even the artwork that that is studied that is put on these grand pieces of architecture.
And then I, actually, went to the Yucatan Peninsula. I needed a science at Elon and I picked the most outrageous thing. Elon had a great study abroad program and I went to go study astrology according to the Mayans; and we went and studied the Mayan pyramids of the Yucatan Peninsula for three weeks. And I think, like I said, the subconscious attraction to older buildings, older pieces of architecture, and just older, unique ambiances that kind of triggered it for me.
[NR] Yeah. Well, that’s certainly the first time the Mayans have come up on PreserveCast. So good work!
[BLT] Yeah. Perfect. It was really after that, I was sitting down with my parents, they required me to work two years in my field of communications, which is what I learned in that field is stuff that I bring to my everyday life and owning my own business. But after that point, I started researching what I can do with a love of historic architecture and that is kind of what led me to grad school.
[NR] That’s how you ended up in Charleston and you stay in Charleston now. You’ve stayed in, I guess I should say, in Charleston now. Why did you make the decision to stick around?
[BLT] Growing up in New Jersey we actually traveled to Charleston quite frequently for vacation, and so I have been familiar with this city. Going to Elon University, we also traveled to Charleston a lot for weekend banquets, just random weekends, and so I had been familiar with it. I actually didn’t stay in Charleston after I graduated with my Master’s. I received a job up in Princeton, New Jersey.
It was so funny and ironic how the first job that I get out of grad school is one back home in New Jersey. I never thought I would of gone back only because Charleston did have my heart. But I did go back for two years and I loved it. If you’ve never been to Princeton, New Jersey, it is exceptional. But it was, actually, my husband’s job that brought us back to Charleston, which I knew we were eventually going to make it back because I could not stop thinking about this city. But yeah, I didn’t stay. I went away and then I came back.
[NR] And so why don’t you tell us a little bit about Charleston for somebody who hasn’t been there before. Obviously, it’s captured your passion and your heart. What makes the City of Charleston so unique from your perspective?
[BLT] Charleston is, I believe, a place unlike any other in the world. It is the ambiance, it is the fact that you walk the city streets and you really could feel like you have stepped back in time. But the most unique thing about it is that it’s a living city. I mean, we are a metropolis but you look at it and the skyline looks like an eighteenth-century skyline. It’s incredible.
What really, I think, attracts both residents and visitors is that setting and in the ambiance. And it’s because we here in Charleston are just so passionate about what is put on our city streets and what it looks like. And if you’ve ever been to a Board of Architectural Review meeting, which really is – anyone that wants to change a building in Charleston or build anew, has to get approval from almost like a historic district commission – and the energy in these rooms are incredible because people are just so passionate about the kind of definitive nature of these buildings that go up.
I think it’s a mix between old and new. There’s a balance between all sorts of decades in Charleston, which I think is the best kind of city, is that different decades are represented, and the buildings are being used. It’s not like a Disney World; it’s not like a museum. You see residents going in and out of their homes, out of these beautiful eighteenth century, nineteenth century, even twentieth-century buildings, and it kind of creates this dialogue. And many people are affected by it subconsciously. They love Charleston, they can’t quite pinpoint why. But it’s the overall ambiance.
[NR] Yeah. I think that captures it and maybe that is a good segue into we’re talking about the World Heritage Coalition. So why don’t you tell us what a World Heritage site is, and the kind of work that you’ve been doing to try and get Charleston recognized as this? You know, your sort of description of it as being this really special place is a great way to maybe start talking a little bit about that.
[BLT] Well, first off, the thing that makes Charleston, one of the things that makes Charleston so unique is that we do get all these generational architectural elements, they survive, you know. So we have this diversity in buildings, and it’s really cool to see all these different decades still existing on our streetscape. We believe – and when I say we, I mean the City of Charleston, Historic Charleston Foundation, Preservation Society everyone that has kind of come together as part of this mission – that Charleston has a duty to tell a certain story to the world. So at World Heritage site is a place that has a history unlike any other place in the entire world or has a landscape unlike any other place in the entire world.
So it could be kind of a natural site. Like the Grand Canyon is a World Heritage site because you can’t find anything like that anywhere else in the world. But you also have Independence Hall here in the United States that’s a World Heritage site. Meaning what happened there, the type of government that was created inside Independence Hall really changed world history. Those are the kinds of things that make up the World Heritage site list. And there are over a thousand sites in the world.
Here in Charleston, because we have… As many Americans know, Charleston had a major role in the transatlantic slave trade. I mean, 40 percent, and I think that percentage is actually growing. We have an International African-American Museum that will be constructed in Charleston where they were doing this research to try and kind of prove Charlestons’s role, numbers-wise. But right now, 40 percent of the African-American population in the United States can trace their ancestors back to the port of Charleston. I mean, that number is just, it’s jaw-dropping. What makes Charleston unique is that we have all of the buildings that represent that story. We have the slave marts. We have the slave quarters, the kitchen houses. We have the rice fields.
I went to a United Nations meeting last year, the National Commission for the UN, and people were actually pulling out these numbers saying, “Charleston could be the largest man-made landscape in the world.” Because if you take an ariel view of Charleston, our marshes are very vast. They’re everywhere, they surround our city. But as you look close, they’re man-made, they’re grids, they’re rice fields; and that just alone, we think makes Charleston this imperative aspect to the World Heritage list. Is that our role in the transatlantic slave trade was world history, and we have ancestors here that still practice the Gullah Geechee culture, which is kind of what came out of all this. This unique African culture, and it’s everywhere. In our food, in our music and, of course, in our architecture. And we feel it’s our duty to tell that story and to pay homage to the contribution that these thousands of Africans did. When you drive by St. Michael’s or in the historic district and these grand buildings from the eighteenth century, that came from the money that came from producing the rice. And who was producing that rice? Thousand of slaves and they were building these buildings and we have the buildings still standing to tell that story.
[NR] So what happens if you are listed and where are you in the process? What does it get you and where do you guys stand in the process?
[BLT] We have until 2026 to get our ducks in a row. The United States looks at World Heritage nominations every ten years and we have been speaking with the National Park Service who is the state body that kind of guides people in this journey because this is not an easy process. Most people that apply for this process fail, and it is because to be a World Heritage site is the highest cultural designation anyplace can achieve.
Charleston has a lot of restrictions already on the built environment and so nothing would change in regards to how we manage our city. People often think that the UN is going to come in helicopters and tell us what we can and cannot do to keep our historic integrity intact, but we already have such a strict method intact that that would not change. We would just be listed as a World Heritage site, and there are people that travel, specifically, to just World Heritage sites. It would kind of give us that ultimate designation that we think this story is worthy of.
[NR] Well, that’s may be a good place for us to take a quick break. And then when we come back, we can talk a little bit about maybe some of the professional work that you do – young Preservationists work in Charleston and the kind of projects that are coming up – and we’ll do that right here on PreserveCast.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] PreserveCast’s home is in Baltimore, Maryland, and one of the things that makes us proud to call the state, and Preservation Maryland, our home, is the love that the people of this state show for its many historic communities. On the afternoon of May 27, 2018, Ellicott City, Maryland, endured yet another devastating flood. The second time in less than two years.
Preservation Maryland stands ready to support the rebuilding, recovery, and rehabilitation of this historic community. In the days and weeks following the 2016 flood, Preservation Maryland provided hundreds of hours of support to the community from surveying and documenting damaged resources to providing cash grants to organizations and non-profits to help restore damaged structures. Following this latest flood, we fully expect to be involved in the recovery again.
To help support that work, make a gift to our reactivated Flood Recovery Fund. There will be a link in the episode description. Donations to the fund will support property owners with technical preservation assistance, grants to organizations, and other charitable recovery efforts as they arise. Thank you, and I hope you are able to help us rebuild this one-of-a-kind historic community. Now get back to PreserveCast.
PreserveCast isn’t just for Mondays anymore. Find all of our episodes at PreserveCast.org anytime. And we’re on social media to continue the conservation @PreserveCast. If you have a question or want to suggest a topic, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[NR] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined by Brittany LaVelle Tula, who is the proprietor and lead architectural historian of historic research firm BVL Historic Preservation Research. We’ve been talking about all things Charleston, South Carolina, and the work Brittany has been involved in to try and get Charleston recognized as a World Heritage site. Pretty cool stuff.
You really drove home the value and the importance and significance of Charleston in terms of its role certainly with the transatlantic slave trade. Let’s talk a little bit about your work with the young preservation community in Charleston. I think when I a lot of people think of Charleston it is sort of it’s an old place and there’s a lot of tradition there. Is there a place for sort of the young preservation community in this very well-established preservation place? What is it like being a young preservationist there and what are you guys working on?
[BLT] There is such a need for young voices in this city, and we’re seeing that every day. And you’re right, many people think, “Oh, Charleston, they have it all under control. You know, the oldest historic district, tons of preservation-minded people involved in the city and great organizations,” and that’s all so true.
But now, people want to know what us young people think. They want us to start getting involved. They want us to become members of all these different groups and for us to voice our opinions because we actually have a lot of challenges here in Charleston and we are in a crisis, actually, right now. We have – and this may sound crazy – but we have way too much money coming into this city; and I kind of cringe when I say that because I know it doesn’t sound like a bad problem. But because Charleston is – the whole world knows about Charleston now. We’re getting ranked on this accolade site, this number one city in the world, this, that, which brings more people and, in turn, brings more money and, in turn, brings more development. And so we are having a major crisis with hotels, livability, crowds, traffic that’s affecting our historic integrity. So people are looking to young people to put their boots on the ground and start to tie up their combat boots, start voicing their opinions on how Charleston can become livable for both tourists and residents, and it’s really cool to be a young person in this city because we actually do have a voice.
[NR] And so what does the Young Preservationist Coalition and the group in Charleston working on?
[BLT] So right now we are fairly young as an organization and it was actually when I attended a National Trust conference. I think it was about two years ago where I heard young preservationist groups from all over the country talking about what they were up to and I thought, “Man, Charleston needs to do something like this.” We have been around the block in regards of preservation, and there are so many young people that want to get involved. But it’s expensive, right, to join all these membership groups and whatnot. So what we’re working on now is to just to create a body of people. We’ve been around now for a year and a half and we’re just starting to grow our numbers, so we pair up with a lot of societies. The city hosts events for us. We’re just trying to get familiar with the issues in town so that we can begin to be activists and start to have our voice as one. So we have just created an event committee and a membership committee. So like I said, we are kind of a fledgling group; but it’s been really cool discussing the possibilities with other young preservationists groups around the country. They’ve helped us out so much. So like I said, right now we’re starting to just get our numbers in order and they’re growing, which is incredible.
[NR] And how does it work in terms of are you guys aligned with one of the more established preservation groups? Or are you just sort of ad hoc on your own? What’s the response been from the established preservation community in Charleston?
[BLT] They’ve been incredible. So we specifically chose to do this where we don’t align with anyone specifically because here in Charleston there are many organizations and we wanted it to kind of be open to all. There is no financial obligation. We meet once a month usually at a bar, a historic bar, obviously, for social reasons. Young people love to congregate in places that are beautiful with a nice drink. And Preservation Society and Historic Charleston Foundation, all these other major organizations have been so excited. So every other month we’re being hosted by a different organization; and we find that to be very successful because we aren’t aligning ourself with one specific organization but we are showing our faith to all.
Every month we get different people coming in; we have realtors, lawyers, engineers. It’s not just this typical preservationist that we all think about; it’s so many diverse people. And that was our point to welcome anyone that has passion for our streetscape. That loves Charleston and that advocates for the historic architecture. We find that to be the best way for us is to kind of float and support each organization in their needs but not necessarily align ourself with a specific group.
A Self-Employed Preservationist
[NR] We’ve talked a lot about some of these passion projects and the work that you’re doing on the preservationist level and the Heritage Coalition. But you’re also a sole-proprietor and architectural historian with your own firm, which is really cool. How does that work for people may be out there thinking about doing that kind of thing? A lot of people toy with the idea of consulting. What kind of work do you do? How has it worked out? Any advice for people thinking about this kind of thing?
[BLT] I have loved it. This is my passion. I know it. And to be my own boss, I guess to say, it’s been hard, it’s been challenging. It’s not easy but it is truly what I feel that I’m meant to do. So with my business, I am a historic researcher. So I’m an architectural historian but I help people humanize buildings. So I help them understand the architectural evolution of their structures and the who, what, when, and why, and how. Kind of put a building in its context. I do this for developers hoping to rehabilitate buildings and who hope to get tax credits. I do it for private property owners who just want to know more about the building that they own. Or I do National Register nominations. It’s very diverse.
But I would say for anyone willing to get into starting their own business is you have to be passionate because it is challenging. We aren’t taught about how to manage invoices or how to have client relations. You wear all hats. Networking was one of the most important things that I did. Every lecture, every event that was happening in Charleston when I first started my business I was out there shaking hands, meeting whoever was speaking, just making sure my name was out there. It’s been four years and I’ve never done one ounce of marketing. It’s all been word of mouth. So I’m very thankful for that.
[NR] And what kind of projects do you work on? Maybe give us a sense for – you kind of talked about them generally – any fun ones that you’d like to highlight?
[BLT] Oh gosh, yeah. I’m trying to think. Well, right now I am working on quite a few. The one that I consider almost my little baby is there was an abandoned 1942 movie theater outside our historic district that a developer purchased and wanted to bring back to life using historic tax credits. What was interesting is the movie theater was never finished because of World War II and the United States Navy ended up renting it out to use as the first ever educational video training center.
So basically, sailors that were stationed in Charleston would come to this movie theater and would learn how to speak Japanese, learn how to deal with submarine warfare, would learn how to shoot a gun all through video, and that was, kind of, the newest thing. And the Navy has great records about this, great pictures. I wish I could share with you on this podcast. But after World War II, it turned into a roller rink, a 1950s roller rink. And when I tell you that the roller rink is still intact, it was unbelievable going in there because it sat abandoned for so long. I think it went – in the 1980s, it was abandoned.
I think it’s structures like that of the mid-century, that we overlook often here in Charleston, and this one’s been incredible to see its transformation. Now, it’s an art gallery and art studios. A non-profit group has come in and used it to really bring it back to life and it’s beautiful. And, basically, what I did was I helped the owner understand how the building evolved, what its history was. We got it listed on the National Register for its role in the Navy activity during World War II and, of course, got historic tax credits.
[NR] So win, win, win!
[BLT] It was such a win.
[NR] So, before we, sort of, move to our conclusion here… Well, is there anything else that you want to cover before we start moving to a conclusion?
[BLT] I love the fact that you asked the question about Charleston and, kind of, being like a well-oiled machine in regards to preservation. I think we have such dynamic issues here that I would welcome anyone willing to come and see our city to show them what issues we are dealing with today. And I think it’s big-time development. Of course, sea level rise is a big issue and making sure the city stays relevant to residents and not just tourists. And I think we’re seeing the same thing happening in, of course, Venice. We are using Venice as an example. I think St. Augustine, these major eighteenth-century cities, are becoming almost DisneyWorlds for tourists and we’re trying to combat that, which is very hard.
[NR] So let me ask you this. You were listed recently on the “40 Under 40” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for People #SavingPlaces. How’d that come about, and what did they list you for? I think people might be interested to hear about that.
[BLT] Sure. I was so shocked. It was amazing. I, one day, got notification from the National Trust that I had been part of this list. And, of course, it’s an inaugural list so none of us really knew that it existed until they informed us that we were on it. And, so, I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be part of this list and to see the other people on this list and what they’re doing. I can’t even believe I’m on the same list as these people. But I was listed under Historic Preservation, and I think it’s the storytelling aspect that got the National Trust’s attention. I’m a true believer that every building has a story. Every single one from the 1990s or 2018 till the 1690s. I mean, every building has a place and story and is unique. And every one of my clients, like I said, from the eighteenth-century residences to the 1940s movie theaters, I believe that every story should be told. I love it. No project is the same, and every project is important.
[NR] Well, Brittany, if people want to get ahold of you or they want to hire you or they want to find out more about what you’re working on, how can they get in touch?
[BLT] Sure. Well, I have, of course, a website. It’s BVLHistoricPresevationrResarch.com. And, on my website, you can find out about the projects I’m working on and, of course, it links to all my social media, Instagram. I’m a true believer in Instagram. My handle is @BVLavelleTulla and, of course, my email’s on there and my phone number. I welcome any kind of conversation or any kind of inquiry. And I truly believe that what you guys are doing here, it’s great. You’re connecting people from all over the nation and what they’re doing in preservation, and I thank you so much for having me on.
[NR] Well, we appreciate it. Before we let you go, now we have to ask you the most difficult question. We ask this of everyone. Your favorite historic building or place?
This Architectural Historian’s Favorite Place
[BLT] Okay. So you may not like this answer, but last summer my husband and I took a cross-country trip in the car. We went from Charleston to Breckenridge, Colorado, and back; and I was blown away by small-town America. I had never seen the Midwest. I had never quite been to the small towns in the West or, like I said, the small towns just outside our southeastern board. I’d only been to major cities.
My favorite historic buildings or places were the neighborhoods. The neighborhoods of Lincoln, Nebraska or Route 66 of Villa, Missouri. I have never seen a more intact, turn-of-the-century neighborhood than I did along Route 66. It was just fascinating to me; and the fact that all this still exists in these small towns, it was just so refreshing. I’ll never forget – and it’s a collective memory – of seeing just these neighborhoods, of people living in these homes, Craftsman or even these Victorian homes that we don’t quite have here in Charleston. So my answer is, kind of, all-encompassing across the nation, but I think it was that cross-country trip that really changed my life if that could have been possible as it being only last year. But I have such an appreciation for America’s small towns, and I really hope that we don’t lose it. And there’s great people working across the nation that are making sure we don’t lose that.
[NR] Well, I think it’s a great answer, and it’s been a pleasure to have you here with us today. Great to hear about all the good work that you’re doing, both professionally and [for] passion projects. We wish you the best. And as soon as we get some information about World Heritage Status, we’ll have you back to let us know. Hopefully, we get good news about that very soon. And thank you again for joining us today. Such a pleasure.
[BLT] Thank you, Nick.
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This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service, and in partnership with the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s episode was produced and engineered by me, Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!
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