Two years ago, the large brick feed store on Henry Street was just another vacant downtown building.

If you go

The William H. Johnson exhibit, developed by Morgan State University and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, will be at Lake City’s Jones-Carter Gallery, 105 Henry St., through Dec. 29.

The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

There is no admission charge. Call 843-374-1505 or visit

Today, it’s one of the Pee Dee’s premier public art galleries, suitable for a traveling exhibition on loan from the Smithsonian Institution that opened here just a few weeks ago.

The exhibition features works by late Florence native William Johnson, one of the 20th century’s foremost African-American painters. It will remain here through the rest of this year.

The Jones-Carter Gallery is yet another example of how a web of nonprofits backed by Lake City native and financier Darla Moore is attempting to transform this town from an agricultural crossroads to a cultural oasis that will attract visitors from nearby cities.

Getting the $23 million exhibit was no slam-dunk.

The Smithsonian had its doubts that the old building could meet is requirements for security, climate control and fire suppression.

“It’s considered a high-security exhibit because of the value,” Moore said. “They were very skeptical of us when we requested it. The only thing that kept us in the running was because the guy was from here.”

During the final weeks, Moore said, the team just kept telling Smithsonian officials one thing over and over: “We can do that.”

The $1.4 million renovation was financed by the Lake City Partnership Council, a nonprofit that Moore helped create to guide the town’s revitalization. The gallery is run by the Community Museum Society, a nonprofit that also runs the Bean Market Museum next door.

Built in the 1920s as a feed store, the building is a parallelogram to match the shape of the parcel. Its renovation involved removing its original floor and pouring a new floor of polished concrete a few feet below — a move that made it wheelchair accessible.

Interior wooden shutters keep out the daylight, while a modern fire suppression system is hidden in a custom-made closet in a corner.

Rogers said the most challenging aspect was saving the original trusses, which had sagged and suffered rot. The solution involved installing new steel rods, and the ceiling’s tall, open feel provides a sense of grandeur.

“You feel like you’re in SoHo, just a more sophisticated version of it,” Moore joked during a recent visit.

Partitions lead visitors roughly in the shape of an “N,” while the paintings trace the chronological progression of Johnson’s works — a progression that led him to New York, France, Scandinavia and back to the United States. His last period, where he depicted black traditions and culture in a folk art technique, is considered by many his best work.

Moore said the project began with a simple desire to save one of downtown’s larger buildings as a public space. Its evolution into a gallery came later.

The building opened earlier this year, in time to serve as a venue for Artfields, the town’s new 10-day festival that distributes art to shops and other public spaces.

Despite its new use, the gallery maintains its big black and white lettering outside that dates from its agricultural era.

“This reinvention is creating our future by intertwining it with our past,” Moore said. “As long as we stay on that course, I think we’ll be successful.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.