For sale: Elements of style

CHARLESTON - No one seems to know precisely when the Historic Charleston Foundation began saving architectural remnants from Charleston buildings.

But it's clear that its collection of window sashes, columns, balusters, shutters, doors and other items more than doubled in size after Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989.

The Historic Charleston Foundation's warehouse is like a big, dusty, informal museum. It will open its doors Saturday as it tries to sell some of the surplus architectural items, many of which were salvaged after Hurricane Hugo 20 years ago.

While the storm didn't raze many old homes, it ripped off many roofs and flooded many crawlspaces - the kinds of places where old building material accumulates over time. As stuff was left at the curb or tossed into trash containers, foundation employees scoured city streets and dove into the trash to salvage the best of it.

Now, almost exactly 20 years after the storm, the foundation is ready to part with much of it.

But the event only tells part of the story of what has been going on inside this nondescript warehouse building just north of the Crisis Ministries shelter.

Because while the foundation is putting a few thousand items up for sale, it's keeping the best stuff, so the city can continue to keep its character. The sale was made possible by a massive cleanup that in turn was made possible through an approximately $25,000 grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

David Hoffman of Edgewood Builders, his crew and four interns from the College of Charleston's historic preservation program spent almost a year organizing, documenting and cataloging the approximately 8,000 architectural bits. The foundation had amassed the collection over decades but never had a plan as far as what to do with it, says associate director of preservation Katherine Saunders.

"The warehouse had this Aladdin's Cave quality, which was kind of cool," Saunders says. "But it wasn't usable. The collection wasn't doing what we needed it to do. We're finding stuff that's been underneath a lot of stuff. We're finding stuff we didn't know we had."

Hoffman also helped identify the true keepers - old and rare items that will be saved as teaching tools for architecture and preservation students and to serve as templates when owners of historic homes want to restore missing features.

Other significant items won't be up for sale Saturday, but could be sold to the owner of a historic home that serves as a good stylistic or chronological match for the piece. It's all about maintaining the city's integrity.

"We're trying to be sensitive not to stick an old mantel in a new Kiawah beach house," Saunders says.

Hoffman says the material can serve as valuable templates for homeowners looking to re-create and restore missing elements from their homes.

There are bunches of balusters, shutters and newel posts all demonstrating how these pieces evolved stylistically from colonial, Federal, Greek Revival through Victorian times. He notes some lumber yards have computers that can scan and replicate old wooden pieces. "But like any computer, if you don't put good information in, you're not going to get good information out," he says.

The sale will help clear space in the 5,500-square-foot warehouse, not just to make more room for when the next storm hits but to make it easier for people to learn how the city was built.

"At the end of the day, this will be accessible to anyone who has a smattering of interest," Hoffman says.