After 82 years, H. Tezza closes up

Odds and ends are all that remain on the loading dock at H. Tezza Inc. in North Charleston. Bobby Tezza, vice president of the company (pictured), and his brother Joe Tezza, president, are clearing out their warehouse in the tile business that was started by their father Hugo Tezza in 1929.

The late Hugo Tezza opened his tile company in downtown Charleston in 1929, the year the Great Depression hit.

Now, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, two of his sons are closing H. Tezza Inc.

Brothers Joe and Bobby Tezza kept the once-booming business, which moved to North Charleston in the late 1970s, going as long as they could, but increased competition and fallout from the lingering economic downturn forced the aging brothers to call it quits.

"If we had been younger, we could have stayed here and fought it," company Vice President Bobby Tezza, 80, said.

Joe Tezza, 75 and the company's president, added, "It was time."

The Tezzas called their business "a dinosaur" in the industry because when customers made selections of ceramic tile, marble or terrazzo, H. Tezza used its own workers for installation.

"That type of work today is being done by subcontractors," Joe Tezza said.

In its heyday, H. Tezza employed as many as 30 people. Its shops -- first in downtown Charleston at the foot of Cumberland Street, then at the current site of Hanks Restaurant, and now on Industrial Avenue off Dorchester Road -- were beehives of activity as customers glanced over samples in the showroom.

Meanwhile, the brothers would work on plans for different projects on several drafting tables at the same time.

In a mostly vacant upstairs workroom at the now-idle business, some of the blueprints for work they performed at Coburg Dairy, Roper Hospital and the Medical University of South Carolina still hang from a rack.

After World War II they installed many of the terrazzo floors at shops on King Street. The entrance to the Riviera Theater features their handiwork.

Their last big commercial project involved replacing some of the brownstone in the columns and steps at the Dock Street Theater in downtown Charleston when it was renovated recently.

Business wasn't always good, ebbing and flowing with economic conditions.

Though it started as the Great Depression set in, it hung on after Hugo Tezza opened it.

"There was no work to be done, but he hung out his shingle anyway," Joe Tezza said. "He had saved up a little money."

The business survived, then thrived after World War II. Hugo Tezza died in 1952, and his sons, first Mark and then Hugo Jr., both now deceased, took over the business before Bobby and Joe started working there.

By the late 1970s they outgrew their downtown Charleston site and moved to North Charleston.

Business remained good, but with competitors popping up and technological changes that enabled customers to look at samples online instead of in a brick-and-mortar showroom, foot traffic slowed.

After financial markets collapsed in late 2008, Joe and Bobby Tezza decided about a year ago to close the business gradually.

"The goal was to continue to solicit work, but just slow down," Joe Tezza said as he walked through an empty room once filled with business files and plans of past projects.

"We have been dribbling along a little longer than I wanted."

The Tezzas hope to lease the main, 7,500-square-foot building and retain the workshop and storage area in the back for themselves. They have even built some office space in the back building for their own use.

"We built this so we would have a place to go when we wake up every day," Joe Tezza said with a laugh.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or on Twitter at @warrenlancewise.