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Foundation Matters

The Legacy of Joseph “Peter” McGee

Posted: May 31, 2024

Each May, HCF and our preservation colleagues around the country celebrate #PreservationMonth to bring attention to the important work that “historic place-savers” do every day. This year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s theme of “People Saving Places” was chosen to highlight and honor the people who pour their lives into historic preservation.

A panel presentation at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference, Charleston 1970. (left to right) Peter Manigault, Frances Edmunds, Dr. George C. Rogers, and Joseph H. (Peter) McGee.

When we think about historic place-savers in Charleston, Joseph “Peter” McGee is at the top of the list. A born and raised Charlestonian, Peter McGee’s passion for preservation began while growing up at 4 King Street in the 1930s and continued until his recent passing in 2024. He served on Charleston City Council and in the SC House of Representatives and was very active in the legal profession, his community, and the arts throughout his career. A born leader, Peter excelled in his unrelenting service as a civic minded community member and, working alongside HCF’s first Executive Director Frances Edmunds, was instrumental in the acquisition and preservation of Drayton Hall.  Among his many important roles in the community, Peter served as a Trustee of HCF and was ultimately its president.

B&W photograph of Richard “Dick” Jenrette, Frances Edmunds, Joseph “Peter” McGee, and Mayor Joseph Riley at Historic Charleston Foundation’s 50th anniversary celebration held at Drayton Hall.

Early in his career, Peter saw the need for preservation advocacy in the Charleston community, beyond brick and mortar. Working closely with Frances Edmunds, Peter used his legal acumen to advise on early updates to Charleston’s historic zoning code which included expanding the historic district boundaries, providing control over demolition of historic buildings, and the creation of height limits across the historic peninsula. This groundbreaking work ultimately led to the nation’s first historic preservation plan in 1974, making Peter and HCF pioneers in preservation planning and land use law.

“If Peter were on your team in whatever capacity, he would bring clarity and resolve in every instance, always crediting others. His very presence lifted any conversation to a high level.” – Kitty Robinson, Former HCF President & CEO

Peter McGee pointing to exposed wall, 2009.

Under Mayor Joe Riley in 2005, Peter co-chaired the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force with leadership from HCF, a volunteer group dedicated to further the study, identification, protection, and interpretation of the Walled City of Charleston. Alongside some of the most passionate and knowledgeable preservationists in the Charleston community, this volunteer Task Force has furthered the understanding and awareness of the historic walled city through research, archaeological excavations, and interpretive signage.

(left to right) Anne Blessing (Chair, Board of Trustees), Christian Sottile, Joseph H. (Peter) McGee, Richard Habersham, Winslow Hastie (President & CEO, HCF), Charter Day, 2023.

If you look around downtown, you see evidence of Peter’s legacy in preserving Charleston’s historic treasures across the historic district. To further celebrate and honor his legacy, HCF proudly established the Joseph H. “Peter” McGee Award in 2023 to recognize excellence in advocacy, community preservation, and planning.

“Peter McGee was the ultimate Charleston gentleman, representing the best this community has to offer. He was kind, humble, funny, whip-smart, and passionate about how this city grew and evolved. Over decades, he was one of Historic Charleston’s most ardent supporters through donations of his time, talent, and treasure. I was extremely lucky to have had Peter as a mentor in my preservation career.” – Winslow Hastie, HCF President & CEO

Charleston is fortunate to be home to some of the most influential preservation pioneers in the country, including Peter. To that end, HCF nominated Peter for the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor, which was bestowed upon him by Governor McMaster in 2020. Historic Charleston Foundation is dedicated to continuing the work that Peter McGee, among so many others, devoted their lives to.

(left to right) Evelyn McGee-Colbert, Joseph “Peter” McGee, Cress Darwin, Charter Day 2023

Joseph “Peter” McGee and son-in-law Stephen Colbert congratulate Richard Habersham on receiving the Peter McGee Advocacy Award, 2023.

One response to “The Legacy of Joseph “Peter” McGee”

  1. Dorothy Rumenik says:

    My mother was a Charlestonian –as children we would spend our summer vacation going to Sullivan’s Island. She was a Sinkler and she grew up in Charleston. Her house was on Rainbow Row – the blue one – which she called “My Blue Heaven”. We were raised as Episcopalians, and to this day most of my dinners come from The Charleston Cookbook.

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