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CharlestonBy Alison J. Stein

In a city largely defined by its historic architecture, an approach to design called Southern Modernism is creating a model for embracing the future while honoring the past.

  • Rear entrance to the Dewberry. Photo courtesy of the Dewberry
  • Workstead founders Robert Andrew Highsmith and Stefanie Brechbuehler. Photo by Olivia Rae James
  • Dewberry's restaurant, Henrietta’s. Photo by Matthew Williams

It’s cocktail hour in the Living Room at the Dewberry. The stylish lounge accounts for half of the windowed lobby of this hotel that encompasses most of a city block bordering Marion Square, the civic heart of downtown Charleston, S.C. Small groups congregate around the clean, angled lines of Danish modern tables, and lean back into teal and tangerine upholstered chairs. Black-clad waitresses emanate from the curving brass bar bearing small round trays, smoothly dipping down between mirrored columns illuminated by lamps topped with glass globes.

The Living Room attracts plenty of locals at happy hour, and even the staff at competing hotels in town encourage their guests to check it out. “It’s an incredible amenity for visitors to Charleston,” says Linn Lesesne, board chair of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And it really speaks to the interests of those of us who live here.”

That’s true, but not so long ago, it probably wouldn’t have been the case. In the Charleston defined by antebellum architecture and old-school Southern charm—the Charleston that for years has ranked high on various travel magazines’ “Best of…” lists and attracted travelers, particularly older ones, from around the country—the Living Room might not have been so welcome. Or, at the very least, it might not have been so popular.

But the Dewberry is one example of a new hybrid approach called Southern Modernism that has locals embracing change. As surely as liquor follows ice into a rocks glass, you can’t hang around the Living Room too long without thinking of the TV show Mad Men. The vibe is unmistakably, determinedly midcentury modern—in keeping with the building’s 1964 origins—but the design also exalts Southern materials and an ethos that appeal to a younger demographic: A table was created from a fallen local oak tree; décor flourishes and the pattern on the room keys were created by a local graphic designer who used local plants as her models. And the structure itself, which started its life as a federal building, has been meticulously restored to reveal in its modernist façade previously overlooked touches unique to its Lowcountry location: The exterior of locally familiar Flemish bonded brick with segmented arches and marble window surrounds recall the Federal and neoclassical styles for which Charleston is known.

  • The Living Room at the Dewberry. Photo by Matthew Williams
  • The Living Room bar at the Dewberry Charleston. Photo courtesy of the Dewberry

“We walked a fine line of respecting the building, and the era, while making it feel familiar to Charleston somehow,” says Stefanie Brechbuehler, founder of Workstead, a design firm that worked on the Dewberry.

In essence, the Dewberry presents a Southern twist on modernism. And it’s far from the only location in the city to be doing that. If you walk up fashionable King Street, a longtime stronghold of tradition in the Holy City, you’ll notice that the interiors of many restaurants, bars, hotels and shops now exhibit a modernist flair—something that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. But as Charleston’s population has expanded in recent years, its composition has changed. Census figures show an estimated 396,484 people in Charleston County in 2016, up 13.2 percent from 2010. About one-quarter are under 18, while only 15 percent are over 65. And multinational companies such as Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Boeing are bringing thousands of highly skilled workers to the city. A relatively low cost of living and a gross regional product that is 26 percent above the national average are also attracting newcomers, and they are shaping tastes here, creating a market for contemporary design in a deeply traditional Southern city.

“Modernism is finally growing in Charleston because we have so many new people moving to town, and they’re taken with the history here, but they want to clean up the design palette, take a simpler approach,” says Michael Amato, SVP and creative director of the Urban Electric Company, a Charleston–based lighting design company that designs distinctly contemporary lighting for clients all over the world.

  • Inspired by the previous industrial site, the architects at LS3P incorporated a contemporary aesthetic into its designs for Workshop using metal, cement, exposed pipes and bright colors. Photo by Andrew Cebulka
  • Workshop. Photo by Andrew Cebulka

While Amato represents the growing appeal of modernist design in Charleston, the road to acceptance hasn’t been easy. “What we have today are bandwagon jumpers,” says John Dewberry, president and CEO of Dewberry Capital, an Atlanta–based real estate development firm, of the applause for his new Charleston hotel. “They booed me in the first quarter,” says the one-time quarterback for Georgia Tech, “but now that I’ve won, they say they were with me the entire time.”

“Booing” is an understated way of describing the pushback he received on his project. Before the Dewberry opened to acclaim, the prevailing sentiment in the city was to tear the building down. From the time it opened its doors as the L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building, it was reviled, says Winslow Hastie, chief preservation officer at the Historic Charleston Foundation. “People considered the building an abomination—that it was not representative of Charleston or its architecture,” he says. Designed within federal government guidelines to use contemporary architecture theory, the structure was basically an unadorned box perforated by many windows. Not only was the building stark and unforgiving, Hastie adds, but Charlestonians associated the location with negative experiences such as paying taxes and getting drafted. So when Hurricane Floyd damaged the building’s interior in 1999 and it went up for auction, every plan that emerged for the site began with demolition. When local preservation groups began to talk about saving the building, they encountered passionate hostility. One architecture critic wrote in the local paper, the Post and Courier, in 2004: “The federal building is simply…what is the correct word? Hideous perhaps? Not a bad choice if it can be made into a usefully descriptive acronym: Horrid, Idiosyncratic, Detestable, Erroneous, Odious, Ugly and Stinky.”

In Charleston, rejection of the new—and new here can mean a building that’s 50 years old—is nothing new. After its incorporation in 1783, the city adopted the motto, “She guards her customs, her buildings and her laws,” and no one would say that Charleston changes quickly. Charleston passed the nation’s first local historic preservation ordinance in 1931, and founded the first community-based historic preservation organization even before that, resulting in a downtown filled with well-preserved homes and other buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the waterfront neoclassical mansions that adorn the Battery neighborhood. It’s proven to be a shrewd move: The most common reason for visiting Charleston cited by the city’s 5 million-plus tourists each year is historic preservation.

  • The Cigar Factory retains Charleston’s history. Photo by Jeff Holt
  • The Cigar Factory retains Charleston’s history. Photo by Julia Lynn

In contrast, the principles of modernist architecture and design by definition reject tradition. It’s hard to imagine a concept more antithetical to Charleston’s philosophy, economy and perhaps even its reason for being than modernism. To some, even the Dewberry’s slogan, “Southern reimagined,” bears a faint whiff of heresy.

Yet something is clearly stirring here. In addition to the Dewberry, there’s enough contemporary and modernist design on display that the Convention and Visitors Bureau created a “Modernist Getaway” self-guided tour of relevant architecture, joining old favorites like “Two Fork Safari” and “Guide to Romantic Charleston.” Much of this modernity is occurring in the interior of historic buildings. For example, the massive Cigar Factory, just renovated into mixed-use occupancy, is 1881 on the outside and totally au courant on the inside, with cement floors and exposed piping. Similarly, 492, a restaurant on trendy Upper King Street, is a late-19th-century building that features swank mod interiors: spiky spherical midcentury lighting and Alice in Wonderland–style wingback chairs.

Outside of downtown and beyond the tightest grip of the architectural laws that govern the historic district, architects have a freer hand. Just opened in May is Workshop, an upscale food hall located in Pacific Box & Crate, a multiuse development a few minutes’ drive from downtown. This was a former industrial site, and the architects played off that, says Marc Marchant, office leader of Charleston architecture firm LS3P, which worked on the project. The development is a veritable catalog of contemporary architecture: metals with artful rust and corrugation, punchy color, cement, raw wood, exposed pipes, turquoise espresso machines, millennials Instagramming their lunches.

Charleston is having a harder time hitting the mark with entirely new buildings. The number of building permits issued in the city and its surrounds have been on a steady climb in recent years, according to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, and many of the new buildings have failed to reflect the blend found in Southern Modernism. “For new buildings, Charleston has not found its voice architecturally,” says Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston. “A lot of what’s coming on right now are large office and apartment buildings—models that are successful in Atlanta and Charlotte,” he says, referencing the two cities locally used as piñatas representing bland regional architecture. “These buildings have little or no place here in terms of architectural language.”

At the same time, today’s needs are different than those of the 18th century—just think about the parking. Building materials are different and difficult to source, and even if they are available, it can be hard to find skilled craftsmen to work with them. “We are highly conscious about not becoming Ye Olde City by Disney, a fake city,” says Hastie. Outside the designated historic area, “we want to push toward something that’s not just neo-traditional, some lame simulacrum of the historical architecture that’s come before,” he says.
The challenge, then, is to translate the distinctive features of Charleston’s architectural language, its culture and its land into current materials and contemporary requirements. “It’s a work in progress,” says Huff. In his view, there’s a long way to go. He points out that his office is located in the Cigar Factory, which was not the architecture school’s original plan. Back in 2012, Clemson University planned to build a new structure downtown—an unusual, contemporary glass building. In public meetings, the architects described their local inspiration, but the result was “unfamiliar, and it didn’t directly reflect the existing language of the architecture, so it was doomed,” says Huff. (At a public meeting, one person described it as a “Martian trap that Walmart would build.”) In the face of fierce opposition from the city, preservation and neighborhood groups, the project was scuttled.

  • 492 keeps the charm of traditional Charleston. Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee
  • 492 gives the interior an updated midcentury modern look. Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

There’s no question that Charleston’s modernist glasnost still has limits. But because it’s a city whose residents have such passionate interest in this subject, it’s a good bet that the solutions that emerge here will be exported elsewhere. Workstead’s Brechbuehler, a recent transplant to Charleston from Brooklyn, continues to operate offices in both cities, but her base is now Charleston, from which she tackles projects in Atlanta, New York and beyond. She’s part of the emerging design community honoring historic context while nudging the aesthetic conversation into the future. Brechbuehler is inspired by the fact that her Charleston base of operations exposes her to materials that she’d never considered in Brooklyn, such as cypress, and the preserved architecture in town is a study in time’s effect on buildings. She fully expects Southern Modernism to influence design way beyond Charleston, making the city that perhaps best represents U.S. design traditions the leader of a whole new approach.

“After all,” she notes, “it’s not just in Charleston that there’s a hunger to enjoy beautiful old architecture that deserves so much respect, and also find a way to make it feel exciting
and new.”

  • Cityscape

    WHERE TO WORK, INVEST AND PLAY IN CHARLESTON

Charleston Angel Partners

With more than 10 years and $8 million in angel deals, this is one of the longest-established investment firms in the region. It works with early-stage companies that seek an investment of $100,000 to $1.5 million. John Osborne, executive administrator, john@chapsc.com, 843.478.7483, chapsc.com

The Harbor Entrepreneur Center

This growing startup accelerator focusing on tech is actively fostering underserved sectors such as life sciences. It recently opened an 8,400-square-foot space in the Pacific Box & Crate complex in downtown Charleston. 1505 King St. Ext., Suite 110, harborec@gmail.com, 843.972.4070, harborec.com

Charleston Regional Development Alliance

This government-associated group represents three counties and supports incoming businesses and entrepreneurs in the greater Charleston region by helping with site selection, financing and workforce training. 4401 Belle Oaks Drive, Suite 420, alliance@crda.org, 843.767.9300, crda.org

Workshop

Choose your lunch or a casual dinner from a rotating cast of emerging and established Charleston chefs in this upscale food hall, where cooks often test their skills to create new dishes. 1503 King St., 843.996.4500, workshopcharleston.com

492

Local favorite chef Josh Keeler crafts elevated comfort dishes that range from lamb shoulder and chicken Milanese to a double bacon cheeseburger with Mornay sauce—easily the most requested dish here. 492 King St., 843.203.6338, 492king.com

The Grocery

Though this Mediterranean-influenced restaurant features delightful wood-roasted fish and cornmeal-dusted oysters, it truly excels at showcasing Lowcountry produce. The roasted peaches with Tasso ham, goat cheese, shishito peppers and pecan granola makes for an unforgettable sharing dish. 4 Cannon St., 843.302.8825, thegrocerycharleston.com

The Dewberry Charleston

This stately hotel, which straddles neoclassicism and modernism, is a showcase of Low country culture: Much of the art on display is by local artists, and the gift shops are curated by locally based Garden & Gun magazine. The well-appointed spa, loosely modeled on owner John Dewberry’s 1770 carriage house, offers treatments designed by Atlanta cosmetics entrepreneur Lydia Mondavi. 334 Meeting St., 888.550.1450, thedewberrycharleston.com

The Restoration

This collection of historic downtown buildings projects a youthful vibe, with rough-hewn wood and brick interiors mixed with contemporary furniture. A rooftop pool provides a rarely seen view of this low-rise city. 75 Wentworth St., 877.221.7202, therestorationhotel.com

The Spectator

A boutique hotel with muscular Art Deco flair, the Spectator lies one block from the Historic Charleston City Market—perfect for a long weekend of shopping and relaxation. 67 State St., 843.724.4326, thespectatorhotel.com

Fritz Porter

Set in the massive Cigar Factory complex, this interior designers’ mecca offers a large selection of antiques and one-of-a-kind fabrics and furniture by local designers. 701 E. Bay St., info@fritzporter.com, 843.207.4804, fritzporter.com

The Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House

Immerse yourself in Charleston’s heritage at these two museums operated by the Historic Charleston Foundation. The two early-19th-century homes are among the best-preserved examples of neoclassical architecture in the city. 48 Elizabeth St. (Aiken-Rhett House) and 51 Meeting St. (Nathaniel Russell House), 843.723.1623, historiccharleston.org

Middleton Place

Just outside the city, this 65-acre former 1740s plantation features the oldest landscaped gardens in America. The extensive house museum and a historic stable tour are notable for the glimpse into the lives of all of the estate residents, including its slaves. 4300 Ashley River Road, 843.556.6020, middletonplace.org

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