With an eye toward the future as much as the past, Historic Charleston Foundation’s outgoing CEO, Katharine “Kitty” Robinson, has redefined preservation for our centuries-old city
In the spring of 1971, Charleston’s azaleas were bright and perky; her secret gardens as intoxicating with bloom and mystery as they are today, but perhaps just a bit more “secret”—if only because Charleston itself was. The city was not yet a tourism mecca, dominating international “Best City” categories. Far from it. Her grand dame buildings were stately and handsome—if not as primped and polished as today; her lush gardens tended with love—though more by ad-hoc green thumbs than professional landscaping squadrons. But her streets were a mix of “Oh, wow” and “Oh, no,” with plenty of downtrodden lots and derelict corners crying out for TLC.
Enter Katharine “Kitty” Robinson, a honey-drawled, ever-poised daughter of the South (though born in Montclair, New Jersey, she’s quick to add) who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and attended the all-women’s Converse College in Spartanburg. “There I had the good fortune of meeting and marrying the most wonderful man from this most amazing city,” Robinson says of her husband, Randal, a native Charlestonian and at the time, an Army helicopter pilot. After completing his service, the young couple returned to the Lowcountry and bought a home on New Street. “I’d never heard the term ‘single house,’” Robinson admits.
Her next order of business was to transfer her Junior League membership from Montgomery to Charleston. Her first community volunteer placement with the League: serving as a docent for Historic Charleston Foundation’s Spring Festival of Houses. And the rest is history, or Charleston’s future, or actually both.
The word “docent” comes from the Latin docere, to teach, or as Webster defines it, “a person who acts as a guide.” Which is exactly what Kitty Robinson has done in her adopted hometown for more than four decades. As part of Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) for much of that time, including serving as president and CEO for the last 17 years, Robinson has guided this historic city into a dynamic, thriving future, and in many ways, she has taught us, too—taught lessons on leading with equal parts vision and grace; taught us how to stand strong and stay true to a mission; taught us that preservation can be as much about our days ahead as days gone by. And most importantly, she continually guides us through complex challenges related to testy growing pains, all the while teaching us that civility, respect, and yes, Southern charm, can be an advocate’s most strategic weapons.
Preservation by Osmosis
“When we arrived in the ’70s, Charleston was slower, smaller, a little tired, and definitely not the thriving city we see today,” Robinson recalls. But she was smitten, nonetheless. “I was fascinated by the city and the Festival of Houses. I loved learning the history—everything I know about preservation I’ve learned by osmosis, starting as a docent,” she says. At the time, the Foundation’s annual festival drew hundreds and hundreds of visitors for tours of private historic houses and was the biggest revenue generator and best-known educational program of the venerable preservation organization. Before long, Robinson was asked to serve as the festival’s volunteer coordinator, corralling and organizing some 600-plus volunteers, and soon she became the festival director, a position she held from 1987 to 1993. During her tenure, Robinson expanded the program to include a “Glorious Gardens” component that became the month-long event’s most popular draw (it’s now called the Festival of Houses and Gardens).
In 1993, Robinson left the Foundation to become director of development at Porter Gaud School for seven years, but remained involved with HCF, serving as trustee on the Foundation’s board. In 2000, she was asked to become its CEO. “I never imagined this is where I’d end up,” says Robinson, who was a German major (earning her degree from the College of Charleston) and had no formal historic preservation or management training. “But I’ve loved every minute of it, through thick and thin, and there’s been a lot more thick than thin.”
Under Robinson’s leadership, Historic Charleston Foundation, a South of Broad mainstay since Frances Edmunds founded it in 1947, has been steadfast in carrying out its mission of “preserving and protecting the architectural, historical, and cultural character of Charleston” and of education and advocacy. But thanks in large part to Robinson’s future-forward approach to historic preservation, HCF is far from a stodgy, nay-saying organization for those who fancy antiques and garden teas. Yes, she guards the city’s character with time-honored tenacity; yes, her museum houses are impeccably maintained and manicured, but more and more Robinson, in tandem with an engaged board of trustees and her staff, has nudged the Foundation beyond polishing antiques and toward pushing the envelope on tough civic conversations: traffic and transportation issues, affordable housing, cruise ship regulation, sea-level rise.
In many ways Robinson is like the iconic free-flying staircase at the Nathaniel Russell House, one of the Foundation’s two museum houses—her elegance and graceful presence belie a staunch sturdiness. She’s constantly elevating the conversation, ascending to the next level. And yet, ever the docent, she’s also playing hostess, welcoming visitors or VIP guests, pointing out the architectural marvels of, say, that staircase or the provenance of an antebellum portrait. And more evenings than not, she’s likely to leave a cocktail party or Foundation donor event, then head perhaps to a Board of Architectural Review (BAR) meeting or a contentious hearing at City Hall, polite and unflappable in whatever setting she finds herself.
Getting to Yes
“The Foundation has a vast interest in the future of Charleston,” says Robinson. “We will always be in the business of protecting the city’s historical architecture and character, but at this juncture we are equally interested in public engagement and shaping how the city grows,” she adds, pointing to debates on building height and hotel ordinances in which HCF has taken the lead, as well as revising the city’s tour guide manual and tourism regulations. In the past few years, the Foundation has brought in national experts and thought-leaders to headline community forums designed to educate and engage the public on pressing issues, including a Mobility Forum in May 2014 and a Hotel Development Forum last spring.
Robinson’s concerns and priorities for the Foundation’s agenda are a litany of big, messy issues: reengineering the Battery wall as one component of addressing flooding; short-term rentals; the proliferation of hotels; and, of course, traffic and transportation—which, she notes, “is part of almost every conversation, but it all comes under the umbrella of ‘quality of life’.” To that end, the Foundation brought noted transportation expert Gabe Klein to town to assess mobility challenges and present recommendations to the city. Klein’s report made bold suggestions, including reinstating a streetcar/trolley system, restricting downtown parking, developing a network of protected bike/ped lanes, and moving the Visitor Center further north on the peninsula where satellite parking would be plentiful. Actions like these would shift our current entrenched, car-centric region to one in which private automobiles would account for only 46 percent of the peninsula’s mode share by 2024.
A concern at the top of Robinson’s list is “housing affordability and residentiality,” she notes, pointing to the pressures of gentrification and the fact that those working service-oriented jobs, many of them tourism related, can’t afford to live near their place of employment, which, in turn, exacerbates the region’s mobility issues. The Foundation has taken the lead in preserving properties on Lee Street and in the North Central neighborhood as affordable housing, and through its Neighborhood Impact Initiative helped fund an urban garden on Romney Street as a community asset. “We want to be focused on keeping neighbors in those houses. It’s so hard to stay ahead of the growth,” says Robinson. She is particularly proud of the Foundation’s efforts in partnership with the City and other stakeholders to create a Community Land Trust as one tool to address housing affordability; in honor of HCF’s 70th anniversary this year, the Foundation made a $70,000 gift to the city to purchase property held by this trust.
No matter how tricky or testy the issue, Robinson is known for her firm diplomacy. “We have great respect for the city and for those with whom we partner and collaborate. We work very hard to get to ‘Yes,’” she says. “And if we cannot, then we agree to disagree with respect, and with confidence that we remain true to our mission.”
Former mayor Joe Riley has been on both sides of controversial issues with the Foundation and Robinson, who served a term on the BAR. During their overlapping tenures and long friendship, the two have worked in tandem on numerous projects and plans, including the City’s Tourism Advisory Committee in 2014-2015, which Robinson chaired. She currently serves on the board of the International African American Museum, Riley’s primary focus since stepping down as mayor. But they did not see eye to eye on the cruise terminal debate, as one example. “Kitty has the ability to lower the temperature and substantially reduce the volume of rhetoric, and that enables progress to be made,” says Riley. “It’s an amazing talent she has to bring people of disparate inclinations together to solve problems.”
He saw this in action when ordinances were being discussed to regulate the expansion of bars and late-night establishments on Upper King Street. “That could easily have become trench warfare, with each side lobbing salvos at the other,” he explains. “But Kitty helped us craft an ordinance that has led to a vibrant, successful entertainment district while preserving a quality of life for surrounding neighborhoods.”
Wins & Losses
In a career as long as Robinson’s, there are inevitably highs and lows, wins and losses. Most recently, the Beach Company’s proposed redevelopment of the Sergeant Jasper property, the 1940s-era high-rise building at the edge of Colonial Lake, entailed a long, hard fight in which the Foundation ultimately did not prevail. The Beach Company’s plans call for an 18-story building and other mixed-use development, including a large grocery store, and HCF among others argued that the mass, scale, and proportions of this new design were not in keeping with “the historic features that characterize its setting and context,” quoting from an excerpt of the City’s preservation code upon which they based their position. “Just because a poor planning decision was made in the late 1940s to allow the construction of the existing Sergeant Jasper building does not mean that we need to repeat, or indeed intensify, this prior mistake,” the HCF argued.
After its initial conceptual designs were denied by the Board of Architectural Review, The Beach Company filed suit against the BAR, claiming its decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and that the board had overstepped its authority. According to Charleston attorney Wilbur Johnson, former chair of the HCF board and an active community member, the proposed Sergeant Jasper redevelopment was a complicated matter that, “in some respects, posed a threat to preservation, as we know it, in Charleston. Kitty played a central role in shaping the dialogue that occurred among developers, city officials, and preservationists that ultimately helped to preserve and, arguably, strengthen, the BAR.”
In the end, the Beach Company received approval for their redevelopment plans, which HCF fought, but the BAR’s future oversight powers were protected. The battle left bruises among the preservation community, but Robinson isn’t one to lick wounds. “We learn from our losses and move forward,” she says.
During Robinson’s tenure, HCF’s wins and successes have far outnumbered disappointments like Sergeant Jasper. Among the many high points of her career, Robinson points to the “pinnacle” moment of the 2011 Winter Antiques Show in New York City in which Historic Charleston Foundation was invited to present the centerpiece loan exhibit. “The opportunity to be the focus of arguably the world’s premier antiques event raised the Foundation’s international profile,” she says. “We are still seeing downstream benefits from that, people who visit Charleston and support our work who were first introduced to our incredible collection from that show.” Robinson credits the success of the Foundation’s annual Charleston Antiques Show, which she created, as yet another positive ripple effect from the New York event. And she looks to the Foundation’s stewardship of McLeod Plantation on James Island as one chief preservation success story.
Willie McLeod bequeathed his circa-1851 family home and 37 acres of former plantation grounds, complete with intact slave cabins and oak allée, to a group of 12 or 13 entities. Each shared a desire to preserve the property, but it was unwieldy and unsustainable to do so collectively. Using assets from its innovative revolving fund, HCF was able to buy the others out. “Our goal was eventually to sell it to a preservation-minded buyer who would keep it accessible to the public,” explains Robinson. At one point the Foundation sold the property to the American College of the Building Arts, but soon thereafter bought it back.
“We held it and held it for 18 years. That’s good work,” she says. “It wasn’t easy to hold on to it. But we did, until the right buyer (in this instance, the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission) came about.” The Foundation made a similar investment in Mulberry Plantation, preserving both historic properties and ensuring their preservation for perpetuity. “I’m proud that the general population knows they can count on us to do the right thing,” says Robinson.
Robinson is stepping away at the end of the Foundation’s 70th anniversary year, at a time when the organization is strong, but the challenges that face Charleston are equally mighty. “I’m very, very pleased to be leaving when the Foundation is in such good shape. We are healthy: our trustees are engaged; we never pause long enough to pat ourselves on the back; we are always moving forward,” says Robinson, who oversees a full-time professional staff of 32 and an operating budget of $4.8 million. “We have strong leadership throughout our staff and our trustees. You can count on this organization to be a vital part of this community, to be firm and positive, to cooperate and collaborate and stand true to our mission.”
The organization has its work cut out for it, as the region’s continually accelerating growth poses challenges to the city’s historic integrity and livability. New hotels continue to receive approval on the peninsula, and development in the Neck area threatens to turn one of the remaining “affordable” parts of town into a high-end neighborhood. These and other concerns keep Robinson up at night. “I don’t want the city to lose its character, to be overrun by too many cruise ships, hotels, and visitors. I want Charleston to keep its standards high,” she says. “And I feel confident with the protective measures we have in the BAR that this delicate balance can be maintained.”
The preservation movement in general, and Historic Charleston Foundation in particular, have benefited tremendously from Robinson’s dedication and work, says Wilbur Johnson. “Her legacy will be one of leadership that is gracious, thoughtful, intelligent, and always focused on the best interests of the entire community.”
Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson: Kitty’s Greatest Hits List
During her 17 years as CEO, Robinson has overseen numerous accomplishments for Historic Charleston Foundation. Here are her top 10 achievements:
■ Serving as cosponsor with the City of a new Preservation Plan for Charleston
■ The sale of McLeod Plantation to the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission
■ Being selected to provide the Loan Exhibit at the 2011 Winter Antiques Show in New York
■ Reinvigorating the Neighborhood Impact Initiative (made possible by the Edmunds Endangered Property Fund)
■ Forming HCF’s National Advisory Council
■ Creating the Charleston Antiques Show to support HCF’s preservation initiatives
■ Chairing the Tourism Management Advisory Committee
■ Opening the HCF Shop in the Market
■ The sponsorship of numerous Community Forums
■ $70,000 gift to the City for the purchase of property in support of the Community Land Trust
Portraits by Sully Sullivan & photographs courtesy of Historic Charleston Foundation