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Discover how architectural historian Brittany Lavelle Tulla uncovers the hidden stories of old buildings

Discover how architectural historian Brittany Lavelle Tulla uncovers the hidden stories of old buildings
April 2023
WRITER: 
PHOTOGRAPHER: 

Find out the significance of one of her recent projects, North Charleston’s Starlight Motor Inn



Charleston’s old buildings have a lot to say. Just ask Brittany V. Lavelle Tulla, architectural historian and founder of BVL Historic Preservation Research, which offers research and on-site consulting for property owners seeking historic recognition for their homes or buildings, rehabbing an old structure, applying for tax credits, or hoping to uncover the hidden stories of their parcel’s past life.

Tulla’s quest to humanize buildings began when she discovered a love of research, deep in the archives, while earning a master of science in historic preservation through the Clemson University School of Architecture. Today, she seeks to fortify the city’s unique character by telling the unvarnished truth of all the people who once called this place home.

CM: What does it mean to humanize buildings?
BVLT:
Buildings are conduits of the human journey over time. People built, lived in, and worked in them. We’ll never meet the generations who came and went before us—but walls, windows, cornices, the size of a door; they all tell you stories about them. It’s like a detective hunt. 

CM: What’s a project that surprised you?
BVLT:
Every building has surprises! But Big Bertha [now Redux Contemporary Art Center] on King Street was incredible. Back when it was a shell of a building, a client recognized its potential and hired me to investigate. I learned she was built in1942 as a movie theater. But then World War II hit, and there were no men or materials to finish the job. So the US Navy leases it to show soldiers training videos before deportation. The amount of men who entered that building and left for the front, maybe never to return—that story hadn’t been shared. The building was a sleeping giant! 

CM: Which part of Charleston are you eager to research more?
BVLT:
Upper King Street is still uncharted territory. It’s not historically designated, yet it’s one of the most jaw-dropping strips of main streets in America. It was historically known as “Little Jerusalem,” home to predominantly Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century. So there were Jewish kosher stores, but also Chinese laundries and Greek cafes. It was our immigrant melting pot—and we still have a lot of work to do to recognize that.

CM: What excites you about the future of historic preservation in Charleston?
BVLT:
Everyday citizens are getting engaged because they see the changes and they’re passionate about their home. People are becoming aware of what makes this city special, and what it deserves: a balance of old and new. They’re realizing it’s going to take everyone to ensure Charleston grows sustainably and maintains its character.

Raised: Manasquan, New Jersey
Lives: Mount Pleasant 
Age: 36
Favorite Charleston street: Legare because of its old oaks and unique historic properies
Current projects: 90 Broad Street (Sorelle), Read Brothers building, Starlight Motor Inn, “Little Jerusalem” Historic District
Required reading: Buildings of Charleston by Jonathan Poston
Historic Charleston primer: Nic Butler’s Charleston Time Machine podcast
Sightseeing advice: Look up!
Follow her: @bvlavelletulla

A Closer Look: Take a tour of the Starlight Motor Inn with Brittany Lavelle Tulla below