The city of Florence soon may demolish one of its tallest and most historic landmarks to clear land for Francis Marion University to build a health complex downtown.

The idea has triggered a passionate preservation debate, one where both sides agree only that when the Florence Trust Company Building was completed around 1919, it made an important statement about the region's economic vitality and optimistic outlook.

City officials say the building must go to make room for the city's future, while local preservationists are trying to block, or at least delay, the demolition of what they see as one of their few remaining buildings worth fighting for.

They fear they may be too late.

Earlier this month, the Florence Design Review Board voted 6-1 to allow the city to tear down the building it bought this summer. City Council normally hears appeals from that board, but it decided not to this time because the city is also the applicant.

"Under the guise of avoiding a conflict, they have effectively eliminated an entire level of appeal," said Mark Buyck, a Florence attorney working with preservationists. "They have also avoided a public hearing where they could hear from their constituents on the matter."

"There will be an appeal," he added, "(we're) just not sure that the City has finished rewriting the rules."

'Look at us, world'

Agnes Willcox with the Florence Historical Commission said the building - conceived in 1914 and constructed a few years later - once made a major statement about the growing importance of this crossroads community.

While the Florence Trust Company Building is only seven stories, many consider it the Pee Dee's first skyscraper because of its steel and concrete frame and Otis elevator.

"It was, 'Look at us, world! We can build a skyscraper,' " she said. "It's such a valid and important part of the story of Florence."

Like many downtown buildings, the Trust Building at Irby and Evans streets saw its fortunes begin to decline several decades ago. In 2006, a business group bought it but was unable to lease it because of the city's concerns that it no longer met codes. The county later condemned it.

This summer, the city announced its plans for the site, which included acquiring the building for $175,000, razing it and conveying the property to Francis Marion University for a new health sciences building.

Mike Bedenbaugh, director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, said the deal showed "a terrible lack of planning" as far as preservation goes.

He noted the building has had its tin cornice removed and its granite base and columns boarded up for some time, "so people can't see the beauty of it."

The Palmetto Trust has no formal list of the state's most historic, endangered buildings, "but we see it as being one of the two or three most endangered places in the state right now."

The city's plan

In September, City Council voted 6-1 to acquire and raze the building to make room for a medical school being established by Francis Marion University and the McLeod Regional Medical Center and Carolinas Medical Center.

Mayor Stephen Wukela said the decision came only after careful consideration of the building's condition and limited prospects for rehabilitation, a lengthy search for a suitable medical school site and a proposed $10 million apartment project nearby that would depend on the new students.

"It's not like the city woke up one day and said, 'Oh, we've got an itch to go demolish this building,' " he said. "This was a product of all these opportunities."

Wukela said developers and engineers have looked at the building, but the lack of rehabilitation plans to date show it would not be cost-effective, particularly because its roof has failed and it has suffered water damage.

"This building has been in this condition for decades," he said. "If it were developable, it would have been redeveloped."

But Willcox said she has consulted with a Winston-Salem developer and with the office of Charleston structural engineer Craig Bennett and has reason to believe the building's renovation is not as financially unfeasible as city officials say.

While Willcox agreed the Trust Building would not be suitable for Francis Marion University's current needs, she said the school could find another downtown site.

"We have the smallest historic district of anybody in the state of South Carolina, and they're tearing it down," she said.

Florence's historic district consists of 30 commercial buildings, of which 24 are deemed significant or contributing, according to its National Register of Historic Places. By comparison, the historic district in nearby Lake City has 62 commercial buildings, 44 of which are contributing.

Willcox said one person told her that the loss of the Florence Trust Company Building would at least energize the city to preserve its next endangered historic building.

"I said, 'What next one?' " Willcox said. "This is it folks."

But Wukela said the city already has saved 10 downtown buildings as redevelopment moved up Dargan Street.

Early next month, he said City Council is expected to sign an approximately $160,000 contract that would allow demolition to proceed as soon as the courts resolve any appeal.

"Unfortunately, what we're losing is an icon of that past development, but what we're going to replace it with is an icon of future development," he said. "While we're sorry to lose the Trust Building, what we're going to replace it with is a health sciences building that will make a statement about Florence going into the next century."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.