There's a certain draw to the building that looms over Magazine Street in downtown Charleston. The former jail, now vacant, seems obviously historic but isn't clearly marked. 

A sign out front advertises that space is "available," though it's not quite clear what space in this impressive but deteriorating structure could be used for. 

The approximately 20,000-square-foot building sits on an acre plot and is the largest unrestored property in the city's historic core.

Jason Ward, president of Mount Pleasant-based Landmark Enterprises, bought the property for $2 million in late 2016, and he brought plans for the property to the city about two years ago. In his vision, the old jail on Magazine will become Charleston's next unconventional office building. 

Since then, the city has approved his proposed exterior changes, but it remains unclear when construction will begin. 

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The Preservation Society of Charleston hosted a tour of the Old City Jail on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

Floor plans show office space for eight tenants split between the second and third floors. The first floor would remain open for what has become the building's primary use: historic and ghost tours.

Charleston tour company Bulldog Tours operates its most popular tour there, a nightly "haunted" trip through the jail. Guides also host daytime tours at the site.  

Aside from serving as an attraction for tourists and a temporary home to the American College of the Building Arts, the more than 200-year-old building has stood mostly vacant for the last 80 years.

"We're just so encouraged that they're willing to take this project on," Kristopher King, the executive director of the Preservation Society, said during a hard hat tour of the jail Thursday.

The preservation group has been supportive of the development plans, which focus on restoring and re-purposing a building that has been deteriorating for years.  

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Executive Director Kristopher King led the Preservation Society of Charleston's tour of the Old City Jail on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

Falling apart in all directions

Inside, the old jail is an amalgam of more than 200 years ago, almost 20 years ago and everything in between. 

Its interior reveals a patchwork of additions and fixes. Many of those fixes — wooden and steel beams that run the length of many rooms — were necessary to keep the walls standing. 

Some were installed more than a century ago, after the earthquake of 1886, which severely rocked the structure. Others were put in much later, when the American College of the Building Arts took up there in the early 2000s before moving into its permanent home on upper Meeting Street.  

Thanks to that residency, there's insulation in the building, interior steel towers anchoring the walls and a hodgepodge of modern touches, such as painted partitions and a small section of elaborately molded ceiling (likely a senior project, King said).

The markings of the jail, of course, are there, too. The walls on the third level's rooms are entirely covered in metal, some of which has started to wear away from water damage. In large empty rooms, rectangular outlines on the floor mark where cells would have crowded it. 

"The building is falling apart in almost every direction," King said Thursday as he led a group through the building, pointing out its main features and the many technical challenges of its anticipated renovation.

Some 70 percent of the stucco is cracked or damaged, the Preservation Society estimates, and many of the granite window sills have been damaged by iron bars. As they rusted, they expanded and broke apart the stone.

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The Preservation Society of Charleston hosted a tour of the Old City Jail on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

Plastic gauges affixed over cracks in the walls like Band-Aids measure whether the fissures are getting any wider. 

Once work begins, those cracks would get fixed first, said Jay White, a principal at Liollio Architecture, which is partnering with Landmark for the project. The work then would extend to fixing the floors and eventually the stucco and ironwork in the windows. 

The city's Board of Architectural Review granted its approval last September. The only significant change to the exterior aside from restorative work was Liollio's design for a new staircase and elevator on the side of the building opposite the Magazine Street entrance.  

That addition would replace a wooden staircase that stands there now — another student project from the building college which, in a whimsical touch, is topped with the shape of a witch's hat. 

In July 2017, just before the plans came before the city's BAR for the first time, Ward told The Post and Courier he hoped to complete construction in 2019.

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As of Friday, the architects and the Preservation Society weren't aware of a start date. Ward did not respond to calls or emails about the project's progress. 

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The Preservation Society of Charleston hosted a tour of the Old City Jail on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

Past lives

The most challenging part of the project, White said, is converting a building that was "designed to be uncomfortable" into the kind of place where paying tenants would want to spend 40 or more hours of every week.

Though it's often called the Old City Jail, it was actually the Charleston County Jail. First built in 1802, it replaced an earlier jail next to that plot on Magazine Street shortly after the Revolutionary War. When the new jail was built, the old jail was used as a Work House to punish enslaved people in Charleston. That building was eventually demolished. 

But the still-standing jail, which operated for almost 140 years, developed a dark history of its own. In its early years, its courtyard was used as a holding area for enslaved people before they were sold. During the Civil War, the jail was filled with Union prisoners of war, including African American Union soldiers, who were jailed along with criminals and deserters. 

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The Preservation Society of Charleston hosted a tour of the Old City Jail on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

The jail's architectural history includes several additions  contributed by some well-known architects. 

About 20 years after it opened, a new wing was built onto the jail to allow for solitary confinement, which, at the time, was an innovation in penitentiary systems. The addition was designed by Robert Mills, the architect from Charleston who designed the Washington Monument.

A significant architectural touch was added to the building again in 1855, when Mills' addition was replaced by a wing designed by Barbot and Seyle, the same architects that designed the church at 68 Spring St., now the Karpeles Manuscript Museum. That firm's work also involved the addition of much of the detailing on the structure's exterior. 

The building was used as a jail until 1939. After closing, the county sold it to the Charleston Housing Authority, and it once had a plan to knock it down. But preservation advocates fought back and ultimately won.

Today, the same preservation group hopes the building soon will see a new life. 

"If this isn't done now," King said, "it could sit here for a long, long time."

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.