An opinion piece in last week’s “Your Lowcountry” section posed the question, “Does anyone truly love the old county library building?” At the risk of inviting calumny from friends and neighbors, the answer is “Yes. I do.” I love 404 King St. because its architectural elements are inseparable from the wonderful experiences I had many years ago in its Children’s Room.
Under the guidance of Miss Madeline Mosimann, the children’s librarian from 1964-77, I developed wide-ranging literary tastes and an enduring love for books. I have had the occasion to study and even to work in some magnificent libraries. But the sense that anyone, anywhere, can learn anything in a library was awakened in me through a caring and beloved librarian at 404 King.
To pull into the unpaved parking lot, jump out and run up the flagstone walkway and straight back into the Children’s Room always felt like a homecoming. Miss Mosimann would materialize, a smile wreathing her face, and in her hand a volume she thought I would like. In the summers, armed with my school reading list and a few suggestions from Miss Mosimann, I would pile books into my arms and head for the nearest hammock.
To my eight-year-old eyes, the pink marble streaked with gray was beautiful and even exotic, different from anything else I knew in Charleston. The curtain walls were distinct from the stately 18th and 19th century houses of my neighborhood.
The architecture signaled that the library was a special place. The glass walls, the open spaces that housed the quiet bustle, the welcome that was extended to every person — this was what a library was.
I was unaware of the controversy over the building’s funding, design and construction. I didn’t know that someone had labeled my beloved library a “pink marble monstrosity.” And I was oblivious to the fact that the library was one of Charleston’s first public facilities to welcome black and white, as the library staff fulfilled their vocation to provide access to all.
Now that I am an adult, I still love the library building. It’s partly a nod to memory. But I also believe that the building has a place in the broad spectrum of Charleston’s architectural history. It may be hard to love the federal building on Meeting Street, or the College Lodge on Calhoun, or even 404 King St., but these buildings represent important moments in Charleston’s architectural timeline: the arrival of the Modern movement, embodied in local architects such as Augustus Constantine, Samuel Lapham and C.T. Cummings (who designed the library).
Because of what 404 King St. stands for, namely — both architectural and cultural progressivism — its fate deserves more thought. One man’s beloved icon may be another’s pink marble monstrosity, but the old library building is a landmark and deserves protection.
The executive director of the Preservation Society (on whose board of directors I serve) has suggested that 404 King be re-purposed as the Clemson Architectural Center, with a rooftop garden and café, well suited to the new vibrancy of upper King. It also ties nicely into the Clemson Architecture program, which was an early proponent of the Modern movement in South Carolina in the early-to-mid-twentieth century.
Preservation efforts in Charleston have always been about finding a balance between retaining the old and developing the new. The former library building, while not old by Charleston standards, occupies a special niche in the city’s architectural and social history.
Surely we can find a better way to honor that history than with a wrecking ball.
BETSY KIRKLAND CAHILL