What Is An Architectural Historian?

Updated: Oct. 13, 2023

Kristopher King talks about the value of preservation, his pet peeves and some of his alluring discoveries in Charleston.

Growing up in Aiken, South Carolina, Kristopher King spent a lot of time in nearby Charleston. He always loved the city, but never understood why until he took a college class on architecture and preservation.

“I suddenly realized why I was drawn to historic cities and buildings,” he says. “I didn’t know that was something someone could actually do for a career and get paid for. It’s awesome.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in architectural history from Trinity College and a master’s in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania, King spent the last two decades restoring houses in Charleston for himself and others.

“There aren’t many houses left in the historic district that I haven’t had some level of interaction with,” he says.

“I love it. And every time I think I understand how all old buildings work, the next one I walk into is just going to hand it to me. That’s what’s so neat, you can always learn something every single time you work on an historic building.”

Today, King works for Carriage Properties in Charleston, a firm specializing in historic real estate. We recently spoke with him after filming Rucker’s Reno, the celebrity renovation show, to learn about a day in his life and some of his more intriguing projects.

Q: What is an architectural historian?

A: I’m sort of an architectural archaeologist, with a focus on building pathology. If I walk into a 200-year-old house, I know how to date every piece of the house. Everything from the moldings down to the saw cut-marks left on beams, to how the nails were made. It’s all datable.

I joke that I’m an attic and a basement guy, not a pretty museum house guy. I love to understand the craft that goes into building houses and help homeowners make informed decisions.

A big challenge is that people don’t necessarily understand how to balance the preservation of an historic building with updating it. Buildings need to be used, and sometime those uses change, so buildings change over time. I help people unpack that, and understand what is valuable, what is original and what is worth keeping.

Q: What is your day-to-day like?

A: Until recently, I had been running the Preservation Society of Charleston, the oldest preservation group in the country. Now I work in real estate for a group specializing in historic properties.

So on any given day, I’m showing clients houses or working with them to help them understand what they have, and providing guidance as to whether things like the mantles or the hardware on the doors are original.

I also do some project management for restoration and renovation projects, and help clients with permitting approvals. In Charleston, everything you do on the outside of an historic building has to be approved.

Q: What are some interesting things you’ve found on projects?

A: Well, that’s the fun of it. There’s a surprise in every house.

What was interesting about the house on Rucker’s Reno is that it was used as an office for many, many years. They had constructed an incredible concrete walk-in safe. It was like when you go into a house and open a bookshelf and there’s a secret room behind.

Another time I was working on a house that had been in one family since it was built in the 1850s. The new owner was a real preservation-minded buyer, and pointed out that one of the light fixtures was an original Philadelphia-made gas chandelier that had been converted to electricity. We found the remnants of another one in the cistern.

It turns out they were worth almost $200,000, but most people wouldn’t have known that, and just thrown them out.

Q: Tell us about a project that stands out.

A: As a developer, I bought an 18th century house. Through research in the Library of Congress, I found photos of a giant two-story piazza (what we call porches in Charleston) that had been ripped off in the 1930s to allow cars to park. I was able to completely restore it back. It was pretty amazing.

Q: What do people get wrong with historic renovations?

A: Over the last 200 years, construction went from being handmade and craft driven to an industry that is now completely product driven.

Most people don’t recognize an historic window was designed to fail, to be removed, taken apart, fixed, put back together and reinstalled. But the problem is that few contractors today know how to do that type of work, because we just throw out a window and replace it with a new one. So that’s a pet peeve, because something built in 1800 is the culmination of thousands of years of tradition and knowledge.

Plus, if you just throw things in the dumpster, it’s wasteful. It’s not very sustainable, and the reality is that anything that you replace a 200-year-old window with will probably not last as long because the original wood was old-growth heart pine or cypress.

I think a fundamental flaw in the sustainability movement with buildings is that durability is not factored into it. We assume everything’s going to be replaced in 30 years, but if you look at an historic building, it’s 300 years old. There’s nothing greener than that.

Q: Why is preservation of historic buildings important?

A: You obviously have the age value, the uniqueness and the architectural character, but you also have the history that’s occurred.

At one restoration, it looked like someone had put a stick of dynamite on just one rafter. It was blown out. We figured out it was from a cannon ball, that had come through the roof. During the Civil War, this neighborhood was shelled from Fort Sumter for hundreds of days. That’s part of our history.

Other houses in Charleston have survived earthquakes, hurricanes, massive fires, the Civil War and even the Revolutionary War! So there are a lot of different layers of value. I mean, they’re survivors, and there’s something very moving about that.

Q: Do you have advice for young people who want to be architectural historians?

A: Absolutely. First, understand that there are many skills and trades that converge to create preservation. So think about what do you want to do, and then focus on how to get the skills and connections you need to succeed. For example, do you want to be an architect, or a contractor? Or do you want to work for the planning department, or a non-profit?

I talk to graduate students getting degrees in historic preservation who want to do project work. I tell them the next job they need is to clean up job sites for a contractor, because you have to get in somewhere, learn from those who have more experience, and work your way up.

Kristopher King Bio

Kristopher King works at Carriage Properties in Charleston, South Carolina. He deals with real estate sales, investment and development, focusing on historic properties. He also works as an historic preservation and project consultant, teaches historic preservation to College of Charleston and Clemson students, and serves on the board of the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust.