Vendome Place & Broadmoor Post-Katrina
beauty after the beast









press clipping


After Hurricane Hugo ravaged Charleston, the historic city demonstrated that a city can prosper if it takes care to keep its charm as it rebuilds
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
By Elizabeth Mullener
Staff writer

Jeffrey Rosenblum had a mess on his hands after Hurricane Hugo tore through Charleston, S.C., in September 1989. He had lost a lot of trees, including one that went right through his roof, wreaking havoc inside.

But he got hold of a generator, so he had air conditioning, television and a fridge. And he got a tarp for his roof so he kept dry. He moved back in and went about his business.

An architect, Rosenblum's practice was hectic in the hurricane's aftermath and, in the fashion of the cobbler's children, he put the repairs to his own house on hold. When his insurance adjuster came by for the first time, Rosenblum told him that he hadn't yet assessed the damage and the man said fine and told him to contact the company when he had.

"Then he sat down at the dining room table and took out a checkbook," Rosenblum said, "and wrote us a check for $10,000. He asked if that would help with our losses until we got back in touch with the company."

"I couldn't believe it, how helpful they were. You always hear horror stories. But in Charleston, the insurance companies came in and did what they were supposed to do: write checks."

Before it was over, Rosenblum spent about $110,000 to restore his house and the company paid for every bit of it.

"I don't know anyone around here who came through Hugo who wasn't satisfied with their insurance company," he said.

But Rosenblum's house wasn't the only mess he had on his hands after the hurricane. There was also Charleston's treasury of fine old buildings, many of which had taken a devastating hit. As a member of the city's Board of Architectural Review, Rosenblum had a mandate to protect those buildings and see that they were properly restored.

A city agency that controls the appearance of buildings in the historic district -- an agency roughly comparable to New Orleans' Vieux Carre Commission -- the board took a tough stand from the beginning.

"We decided that in the long run, the best thing to do was to do it right," he said.

And they did. They insisted that a metal roof be replaced by a metal roof, that a facade maintain its integrity and that nothing that could be fixed would be torn down.

"We have buildings all over town right now that owners wanted to tear down," Rosenblum said. "If you say 'no' enough, eventually somebody comes along and has a use for it and saves it.

"If the building has good bones, fix it. If you start ripping things down, you're gong to lose the city."

Losing the city is what Rosenblum fears for New Orleans. A graduate of Tulane University, he has a passion for the place and its architectural heritage.

"People need to know you can repair New Orleans," he said. "You can put it back. And when you plan it, you've got to do a good job. A good New Orleans job -- not a San Diego job or a St. Louis job.

"What we don't want is another city that looks like another city. We all want New Orleans to look like -- and be like -- New Orleans."

In the end, generous insurance checks and an effective watchdog agency were two of the major forces that drove Charleston to an impressive comeback.

Another force was Joseph Riley.

Mayor receives credit

Charleston's mayor for 30 years, Riley said he never had a moment's doubt that Charleston would come back after Hugo.

"Cities recover," he said. "That's what they do. That's the history of the world. The human spirit responds. People build and rebuild. People pick up and get back to work. They always have and they always will."

Slim and slight at 62, with graying hair and white eyebrows, Riley won an unprecedented eighth term in office recently. Beloved locally and respected nationwide, he is known in some circles as the best argument in America against term limits.

"In the immediate aftermath, he convinced people -- and that's a strong word, convinced -- that their local elected officials could get them out of dutch and back on the road," said Steve Mullins, managing editor of the Charleston Post and Courier, the city's daily paper. "And by golly, that's what happened.

"He knew how to get help and get it into people's hands. FEMA was too late and too cautious and too slow. So people didn't look to FEMA; they looked to Joe Riley. If he says it, it's going to be true.

"He was phenomenal."

With an unflappable temperament, a lot of late nights, a firm sense of organization and an effective media presence, Riley helped his city come back in grand style.

Charleston today is a prosperous and vibrant place -- lively, swanky, immaculate. The antebellum houses, with their Palladian windows and long porches, are pristine, many without a flake of paint in sight. The old gardens are clipped and orderly with handsome brick walkways and well-bred hedges. Elegant church spires pierce a diminutive skyline. And King Street downtown -- narrow and intimate and architecturally vivacious -- is jammed with shops and shoppers.

In most parts of town, it would be hard to see any evidence that there was ever a hair out of place, never mind a disaster that rattled this city within an inch of its life.

By nearly every measure, the city is better than ever, stronger than it was before the storm.

The population has grown by about a quarter. Tourism is up, shipping is up, construction is up and unemployment is down to 4.7 percent. Retail trade has doubled and the sale price of an average home has shot up, outpacing the national boom. The hotels are packed, the restaurants are chic and the tourists, to a notable degree, are well-mannered and well-groomed.

Today, Riley offers the same prognosis for New Orleans.

"Obviously you never wish for a natural disaster -- the destruction, the disruption," he said, closing his eyes and waving his hand as if to dismiss the memory. "But they create opportunity, an opportunity to plan for a better future.

"New Orleans will be restored. It's hard to see that when you're in the midst of the rubble, but it will happen. It happened after the bombing of London and Berlin and Dresden in World War II. It happened in Richmond after the Civil War. It happened in San Francisco after the earthquake and Chicago after the fire.

"The fact of the matter is that you recover from disasters. And the recovery -- the recovery itself -- produces a huge economic boom. That hasn't begun in New Orleans yet, but it will. A boom time happens. You'll find that out. Your unemployment rate will be zero."

A serious man with an engaging way of locking eyes, focusing on the subject at hand and thinking hard, Riley has spent a lot of time recently thinking hard about New Orleans.

"Cities were formed for various reasons," he said. "They were formed at the mouth of a river or the intersection of railroads or along a worn trading route or on harbors or lakes. But they were formed and people occupied the land and developed it and they created a culture.

"There is a sacred nature to cities. People make them sacred. A natural disaster doesn't change that. It might interrupt it for a while and make things difficult. But it doesn't change the reason the city was there.

"New Orleans is at the mouth of the Mississippi River and that isn't going to change. It's in the Sunbelt; that won't change. It's in an extraordinary and diverse environment. It's got a style, a culture, a spirit. It's got music and art and food. There is history, patina, texture. It's all there. And it will all be there. And that will be the source of its rebuilding."

Alike and not

Tom Bennett, a Charleston Realtor who frequently visits New Orleans, thinks of the two places as sister cities.

"New Orleans is the bad sister," he said, "and Charleston is the virgin sister who probably isn't.

"Charleston is beautiful -- cleaned up and made presentable -- but New Orleans is decadent and dirty and wonderful."

In those, and a thousand other ways, the two cities are deeply different. New Orleans is sassy; Charleston is polite. New Orleans is rowdy; Charleston is sedate. New Orleans is Catholic; Charleston is Protestant. New Orleans is famous for political corruption; Charleston is famous for political effectiveness. New Orleans is funky; Charleston is prim. New Orleans is French; Charleston is Anglo-Saxon. New Orleans is poor; Charleston is rich. New Orleans is unruly; Charleston is anything but.

And most crucial in these times, the disasters the two cities suffered were vastly different. "The devastation here was substantial. The hurricane delivered a physical and psychological blow," Riley said. "But I was in New Orleans recently and the amount of destruction there, the expanse of it, neighborhood after neighborhood -- the scale was surprising. Your devastation is far greater."

Both Hugo and Katrina hit land with wind speeds of about 140 miles an hour, though much of New Orleans is thought to have experienced winds of lesser intensity given the eye's distance from the city. But in Charleston, that was the end of it. The water came in and went out. Only about half the city evacuated. There were only a handful of deaths. The vast majority of residents were back in their homes three months after the hurricane. While Katrina ranks as the costliest American catastrophe ever, Hugo ranks seventh.

In short, Charleston only had to repair. New Orleans has to rebuild. And in addition, New Orleans has to pull off a world-class engineering feat to make the city viable again.

There's one more difference, too: In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, the political forces in South Carolina -- from Fritz Hollings in the U.S. Senate to then-Gov. Carroll Campbell in the State House to Police Chief Reuben Greenberg to Mayor Riley -- worked in harmony and in tandem to put things right. There was no infighting or backbiting, no fractious feuds to gum up the recovery process.

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency failed them, Hollings famously lashed out: "I called them a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses," he recalls, chuckling with pride. A veteran Democrat with 23 years in the Senate by then, Hollings used his well-cultivated connections within the federal government to get things done.

But if there are profound differences between the two cities, there are profound similarities as well. They are both Southern, both historic, both well-preserved, both port cities, both out of the national mainstream. And they both have cultures forged in America with significant strains of both European and African ancestry.

They are both tourist meccas -- and both for the same reason: Charleston and New Orleans have a certain measure of authenticity and that authenticity is the source of their powerful draw. For all the homogenization of American cities, and particularly their suburbs, for all the chain stores and soulless restaurants, there is an enduring hunger for something genuine, something exotic, for a place that has a hold on its history, a place that reveres its past.

"These cultures are older, of a different time," said Ted Rosengarten, a historian at the College of Charleston. "It's nostalgia. Nostalgia isn't a bad word. It's a word that tends to cheapen a legitimate kind of longing -- something deep, some deep kind of need.

"One of the great things about both these cities is this: You step out of a museum and you're in a museum. A better museum. You're in a museum without walls. A living museum."

The Jacuzzi effect

Interestingly, although Charleston changed profoundly after the hurricane, it didn't change course. Rather, it accelerated the course it was on.

The city has become richer and whiter. The suburbs have sprawled more. The historic districts are better preserved and gentrification is a constant threat to poorer neighborhoods. There are more tourists and fewer native-born residents. And the barrier islands have exploded with population and development.

"Hugo intensified everything," Rosengarten said.

In terms of preservation, people not only restored their homes after the storm but upgraded them as well, thanks in large part to the generous insurance settlements. They put on stronger roofs, installed finer kitchens, upgraded the electrical systems and took care of maintenance they had deferred for years. And everyone did it at the same time.

"We called it the Jacuzzi effect," Mullins said. "A lot of people had Jacuzzis after Hugo who didn't have them before."

Charleston's construction boom is also due to in-migration. Barrier islands such as Daniel Island, Sullivans Island and the Isle of Palms have all seen a significant growth spurt, both in the number of people and the size of the houses. The New York Times recently cited Sullivans Island as one of the five poshest locales for second homes in America, with a median selling price last year of $1.1 million.

Some people think it's a bit much.

"Particularly on the barrier islands, many people received very substantial insurance settlements, which they then used to build very large houses on their existing lots," said David Rawle, head of a Charleston marketing firm. Some of those islands are more McMansionized than one might like. I think the Isle of Palms ought to be the Isle of Palms -- not the Isle of Houses."

King Street, the time-honored shopping venue that meanders through the city's historic district, was just beginning to come back after a long period of dormancy when Hugo struck. Now it's jumping, lined for block after block with stylish shoppers, upscale chain stores and rooflines that zig and zag and peak and curve.

And although Charleston had always taken pride in its culinary traditions, its restaurants have gained a luster of creativity and sophistication in recent years.

Even the closure of the Charleston Naval Base just seven years after Hurricane Hugo couldn't keep the city down. About 150 new companies have opened up since then and the 22,000 jobs that were lost have all been replaced.

Real estate prices have kept Charlestonians stocked with cocktail chatter for several years now. Mansions in the historic district sell routinely for $6 million. Some are fetching $1,400 per square foot.

"The average price in the South of Broad neighborhood is about $1 million," Bennett said. "A little 2,200-square-foot house can be $1.5. One house had 1,000 square feet and sold for $1.3 million. It was beautifully done, but no parking, no garden."

Even the cemeteries in this city are shipshape. The one behind St. Michael's Episcopal Church is touching with its rectilinear walkways, its graceful trees and its straight-up tombstones, many dating from the 1700s, some lightly touched with lichen but still respectably tended and mostly still legible.

"This economy is booming. Oh my god, it's booming," said Barbara Williams, executive editor of the Post and Courier.

"Charleston is at a good point in its history," said Rosengarten.

That empty feeling

What ails the city of Charleston now are the perils of prosperity -- while New Orleans suffers from the perils of poverty.

"One of the sad things about downtown below Broad is that the fine old houses -- the monsters, great gorgeous things with sea views -- have been bought up by people with houses in more than one place. So they're empty lots of the time," said Rosemary James, a longtime New Orleanian who was born and bred in Charleston.

"South of Broad is so empty you could send a cannonball through it. The ghosts of Charleston families are lonesome."

Charlestonians have a delightfully bitchy term for the non-residents who buy trophy houses: drive-by neighbors.

"They own the places for two years and then they get bored," Realtor Jonathan Poston said. "In some cases, they alter the houses to suit their needs. They put in Viking stoves and Sub-Zero fridges. And then they use them once or twice a year.

"People read a magazine article about Charleston and decide it's going to be charming. But the reality is that it's a small city. So they're bored. So they move on. Over and over we've had this phenomenon of absentees who buy houses and never appear."

Gentrification is another peril of prosperity. While African- Americans used to be concentrated on the peninsula, which is the heart of town, many have been pushed out to the suburbs as their old neighborhoods have become more valuable.

The city's East Side, a traditionally black neighborhood filled with handsome century-old architecture, has successfully resisted gentrification. But in the process it has also resisted restoration. It is one of the rare parts of town where the scars from Hurricane Hugo are still visible -- in boarded-up windows, crumbling porches and abandoned houses.

"There is a long-standing conflict between preservation forces and people in poorer communities," Rosengarten said. "Black people feel the white power structure wants them gone, wants them out of the peninsula. What they see is creeping gentrification and that means higher rents. They can't afford to live in their own hometown."

In truth, there are all sorts of local people who can't afford to live in Charleston any longer. About a third of the influx of newcomers since Hugo have come to buy a second home; about two-thirds have come to retire. About a quarter of the population in the metro area didn't live there in 1995. People from old-line Charleston families can't afford the mansions their ancestors grew up in because they can't compete with super-rich out-of-towners willing to pay millions for them.

Those forces can rob a city of some of its diversity, flavor and character. As glorious as Charleston is in its post-Hugo incarnation, some people miss its scruffier days. "A little more peeling paint would be nice," is the way Williams put it.

"I think the hurricane helped hasten the demise of the last of the seedy bars and funky establishments here," Poston said. "They were on their way out anyway with gentrification. But there were two or three strip joints downtown and a number of bars where you had to knock on the door in the old days. I knew this man who used to say that Market Street before the 1970s was the one place you could get a drink, a tattoo and a social disease all within in a couple of blocks."

'Tourism is great'

On a crisp Saturday morning recently, under a crystalline blue sky, Meeting Street in old Charleston is dazzling.

At the First Presbyterian Church, a statuesque magnolia stands sentry in the middle of the courtyard amid the twisting oaks and ascendant palms. Down the way, a shock of lavender plumbago spills over a brick wall. Further on, there are deeply pink roses peeking through the staves of a wrought-iron fence.

Like the gardens, the houses are stately and grand with their classical pediments and hard brick, their frilly balconies and arched windows. There are Jaguars and Mercedes in the driveways. The alleys are clean and tidy.

Every vista fringed with green, it is an idyllic setting for kids on bikes, for strolling couples, for serene solitary ambling. But on this morning, save for one runner and a woman toting groceries, the only people on Meeting Street are tourists -- for blocks and blocks. They come in horse-drawn carriages, in mini-buses, on foot with a guide. It is hard to walk down the street without catching fragments of their spiels:

"Beauregard gave this house . . . "

"It was on this spot in 1836 . . ."

"This was once owned by a signer of the . . . "

"In 18 months of siege . . . "

The sheer number of visitors -- about 4 million a year -- can be overwhelming in a town of 100,000. But Charleston is well-known in city-planning circles for its vigorous management of tourism. The powers that be are committed to vigilance.

"It takes a full-court press," Riley said. "You can't let up."

Still, tourism is Charleston's number one industry and when Hurricane Hugo hit, the full-court press was directed at getting it up and running again.

The city closed itself down pretty much for six weeks. When it opened up again, it tried to make a splash. Rawle's marketing firm came up with a slogan: "We're going strong," and the city began to advertise and go after media attention. Every milestone was an occasion for celebration.

"It will take time," said Riley, "but eventually your Superdome will reopen. When it does, you make it the biggest celebration you ever had. Let the world know."

One of the things New Orleans will have to counter, Riley said, is the media image of the city in ruins.

"The truth is, the French Quarter is open, the Garden District is open, restaurants are open, hotels are increasingly open," he said. "You could come to New Orleans right now and have a great time. When I came back home, I told people to go there, eat a great meal, hear some jazz.

"New Orleans has to get the word out."

Once the word is out and the tourists come back, some of Charleston's management tools may be helpful.

"Boiled down, our philosophy about tourism is that all decisions for a city should be made with the resident in mind first," Riley said. "And if you do that well, you make your city even more appealing to tourists. We approach it as a strategically valuable economic resource to mold and shape to benefit us first.

"Tourism is great. You've got human beings with money in their pockets looking for a happy time."

'New Orleans will recover'

Riley is proud of Charleston's new incarnation.

"Without any question, this city emerged from the recovery stronger, more beautiful and more economically vibrant than it was before," Riley said.

Charleston played to its strengths. Like New Orleans, it is one of the nation's jewels, a city bathed in history with a sense of place and a sense of style. It has delighted generations of visitors with its architecture, its landscape, its neighborhoods, its food, its waterfront, its ambiance. And it always will.

It made hard decisions, negotiated complex plans, mapped out clear directions and established tough standards. Then it went to work.

Riley is confident New Orleans can do the same.

"There is a great story in the reconstruction of New Orleans," he said. "This fabulous, wonderful city, so important to America, so important to the world.

"New Orleans will recover. New Orleans will be restored. New Orleans is going to come back. I look forward to watching it."

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Elizabeth Mullener can be reached at or (504) 826-3393.