Review Category : Chris Damgen

Jury is out in the case of the courthouse

By Chris Damgen

No one I know has ever called Beaufort architecture boring or mundane. However, it can certainly be understood that visitors to our area often get overwhelmed with the T-floor plans, the two-story piazzas, and the differences between federal and neoclassical chimney designs.
It is interesting though whenever I take out-of-town visitors for a walk around the historic district that the one building that always draws measured interest is the very one that doesn’t fit the vernacular of our antebellum district. It is the federal courthouse building.
The courthouse has been sitting on the Bluff like a forgotten beauty on prom night for many decades. What was once an ornate county courthouse on the tight corner of North and Bay gave way to a beautiful and elegant Art Deco design of the WPA era, as was the popular architectural trend at the time. Although having sat quietly in recent years as court cases moved away, the building received a fresh coat of spectacularly white paint only last year and has certainly aged gracefully.
Now we hear that this building took the top honors in a list of courthouses across the country that are scheduled to be shuttered, leading to the inevitable discussion of what to do with this building.
Beaufort County (which has first dibs on the property) has already expressed interest in utilizing the building and is all but measuring drapes and imagining mundane cubicles scattered about the old court room. Dissatisfaction with the complex on Ribaut Road has even led some to suggest that County Council meetings ought to be held in this space.
All I can say is that I hope we can find a much better use for this property.
In the past few years, Beaufort has demonstrated an awesome ability at adaptive reuse of older properties. Take the corner properties at Carteret and Port Republic streets. What was once a furniture warehouse and bottling plant has become two the top restaurants in town. A rundown motor lodge from the 1950s became an upscale boutique hotel. A former post office and city hall has become a produce market and café.
There is no reason to believe that the federal courthouse could not be turned into the next Breakwater, Wren, City Loft or Lowcountry Produce.
Furthermore, the courthouse’s anchor position on the south end of Bladen Street can serve as a catalyst for future mixed-use development on that corridor. The City of Beaufort has already completed a streetscaping project on the northern blocks of Bladen Street and will be completing the second phase of this project on the south end this year. Nearby MidTown Square will be adding close to 20 newly constructed homes less than two blocks from the courthouse. Individual renovations of properties across the Northwest Quadrant continue to bring improvements to the area.
Think of the possibilities for what can be achieved for that building. Converted loft apartments. A community theater space (motion pictures or stage). A microbrewery. Senior assisted living. USCB dormitories. These are just some of the suggestions that I have heard from my friends when discussing the situation on Facebook the other day.  Any of the above uses would go a long way to helping the Bladen Street area develop into a true “midtown” mixed use district.
There are many other possibilities out there. One thing though is for sure:  the highest and best use for a building of such prominence and beauty should not be limited to government uses for only five days a week. Consider as well that there are several government owned buildings within a mile’s distance of the courthouse that are sitting empty or at half capacity. Before investing in converting the building for county use, perhaps the county could actually sell the land and make some money to pay for improvements to its existing buildings.
While the verdict may be inevitable on the immediate future use of the building, let it not be said that there was alternative testimony in the case of the courthouse’s future. Before we rest this case, let us consider all available possibilities so we can have an outcome worthy of the building itself.
Chris Damgen lives in Beaufort and is a city planner in South Carolina.

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What ‘No Child Left Behind’ ought to be

By Chris Damgen
In trying desperately to make sense of Dan Durbin’s shocking resignation, one quote in particular leapt out to me.  In talking with the Beaufort Gazette last week, Durbin said the following:
“I’m not sure that the role of principal hasn’t passed me by… To me, it’s about nurturing, about building up students to be the best they can be. But the new job of principals is about numbers, statistics and test results. I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m just saying that isn’t me.”
More than anything, this quote emphasizes what is quite wrong with public education these days.
I was fortunate to have graduated from a public high school in 2002, just before the new standards and dictates of the federal No Child Left Behind program took into place. They had a new definition of a “good” school. Mine was different.
I would’ve characterized a good school as one where students performed increasingly well in the classroom (as well as on stage and on the field and courts), parents were involved and informed of school happenings, teachers were engaging and wanted to remain at the school, and where the principal was one who knew nearly every student and cared deeply about their success; in school and in life after school.
Based on my definition, as of last week, Beaufort High School was one of those good schools.
The bureaucrats will tell you that BHS has not met adequate yearly progress in the past five years and that the “absolute rating” (whatever that means) has been “average”. So, one can come to the simpleton conclusion that Dan Durbin is considered only “average” according to “No Child Left Behind.”
But if anyone knows him or has followed his career, Dan Durbin is the living embodiment of the phrase “no child left behind.”
What the bureaucrats cannot tell you is that Durbin had turned a school on the verge of becoming a fight venue for militant teenagers into a learning community where the emphasis of “family” became a core rallying cry.  They cannot monitor the number of tireless hours Durbin spent walking the halls, visiting classrooms, cheering on the teams, taking in the performances, and personally mentoring students. And they certainly cannot share with the public what sort of positive influence Durbin had on dozens of teachers, hundreds of students, and thousands of alumni.
Many people associated with BHS will tell you that the trajectory of the school was upwards. It is without question that a major reason for this was Durbin, who dutifully and faithfully served the school for nine years as principal, an eternity by Beaufort County School District standards.
Ah, but what about those grade changes, you ask?
This is where it becomes so difficult and heartbreaking. Yes, Durbin’s actions were wrong. He broke the rules.  He even admitted as such. He did not set a good example for students by flaunting a policy. He absolutely needed to resign for his actions. He took responsibility and prepared to do so at the end of the year.
But as one cannot judge a book by its cover, one cannot judge Durbin for these actions alone. No reasonable person can honestly state that Durbin’s intentions were sinister.
We as a society need to ask ourselves: Is it better to follow the rules and have the kids not graduate? To let them become disillusioned with authority and become cynical to lifelong learning? If changing or adding a grade enabled several students who had already demonstrated an ability to pass a subject in latter courses meant that they would be able to graduate, then perhaps it was worth taking the fall. Isn’t that the essence of not leaving a child behind?
If only the powers that be at the Beaufort County School District demonstrated the same level of commitment and attention to a child’s education and future success, perhaps we wouldn’t have this predicament.
By forcing Durbin’s resignation in the middle of the school year, the district demonstrated it cares only about appearances and not about the interests of its students. They had no consideration about the emotional upheaval this has caused for BHS students, faculty, staff, and parents. They have no decency in allowing for a respected educator (who openly admitted to erring) to complete the school year and resign with a measure of dignity.
No, the district chose the “No Child Left Behind” approach. And in doing so, they left behind children and what little respect they had left in our community.

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The Airing of Grievances

By Chris Damgen
You know those columns you see every year on Thanksgiving week? The ones who describe all the activities and intricacies of said columnist’s supposedly unique traditions? The ones that you can recycle year after year and never tell the difference? The ones when you finish reading them you wonder why do I read this same darn column year after year?
Yeah, this isn’t one of them.
Allow me to dabble with a different type of column. I’m a big “Seinfeld” fan. One of the pinnacles of the “Show About Nothing” was its lasting cultural influence, and perhaps my favorite lingering tradition is the celebration of Festivus. For those who aren’t familiar with the show, Festivus was a made-up holiday created by Frank Costanza (George’s father) when he tired of all the commercial aspects of the holiday season.  Or, as he tells it:
“Many years ago I went to the store to buy a doll for my son.  As I reached for the last one on the shelf, so did another man. As I rained blows upon him I realized there had to be a better way!  [Out of the destruction], a new holiday was born. A Festivus for the rest of us!”
There are several key tenants of celebrating Festivus, but perhaps most endearing to many is the so-called “airing of grievances.” Now that I have your attention, I gotta lotta problems with you people, and I’m gonna let you have it!
• Beaufort County, SCDOT, et.al.:  The construction on Savannah Highway has continued at a snail’s pace since about 1835. Perhaps we can move it along a bit quicker?
• Lady’s Island:  Why must you have an apostrophe in your name? As a good friend of mine always said … two women are better than one.
• Happy Wino: The Walmart wine you opined about months ago was terrible! How will I ever get my $4.95 back so I can afford my 3-buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s?
• Town of Port Royal: The speed limit on Ribaut Road is designed for ensnarement and entrapment, and you know it. End this misery and allow us Beaufortonians to drive right through your humble burg.
• Remaining Mermaids from the “Big Swim”: Give it up ladies. Your time has passed. Time to hang up the pole you’re on and hit the river.
• Cable “Providers”: Your service stinks, your Internet is slow, and your unwillingness to bury wires has caused great consternation among our live oak community.
• Horse Carriage Companies: You make Congress look like angels with your inability to get along. By the way, the White House was not modeled after a home in Beaufort built in 1852, so relax with the tall tales.
• Bill’s Liquors: You remain hazardous to my health by stocking every conceivable libation known to man.
• School District: Closing one of your top-performing schools in the interest of financial stability doesn’t make you penny wise.  It makes you pound foolish.
• Bluffton: Just because.
Now, before you call me a Grinch, I will be perfectly honest. Thanksgiving happens to be my favorite holiday of the year. I love mooching from others’ hard-earned dinner preparations.  I love watching the Lions lose year after year. I love the feeling of immobility that one has shortly after dinner is over. I love the after-Thanksgiving drinks one has with friends at a bar so one can get away from annoying relatives and bratty kids.
But what I really hate is that Thanksgiving is getting swamped over and forgotten by the monolithic nemesis of a commercial “holiday” that occurs the next month. Every year, it seems the Christmas creep gets worse and worse. Last year, stores were beginning to offer Christmas layaway in August. This year, there will be stores opening up on Thanksgiving night. It has gotten so bad that one Target employee started a petition that has attracted thousands of signatures in support, stating how the commercial madness of the season has removed so much of the meaning of the holiday. Christmas is still near and dear, but for goodness sake, can we just celebrate it as it really ought to be? Not with our current greediness.
I suppose it’s easier to be greedy than to be thankful. And perhaps that’s the biggest indictment that we as a society have today, and the last grievance that I leave with you. Happy Festivus to all, and may all your grievances melt away with the snow that we are rarely privy to have in the Lowcountry.

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The Art of Appreciation


By Chris Damgen

In third grade, I entered into a nationwide traffic safety poster contest that was sponsored by the American Automobile Association. The poster I drew showed a very disproportional drawing of kids playing soccer (yes, soccer) away from traffic, separated by a house drawn at a different perspective angle than other items.

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A Week in the Life of a Beaufortonian

By Chris Damgen

“Why’d you move here?”

I remember that sharp, poignant question made by a grumpy waitress nearly four years ago at a restaurant that shall not be named.  I had just moved to Beaufort. I had my first conversation with a local of my age.

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