Appetite for preservation

The outdoor seating area at 492 is gated off from the sidewalk by a steel gate that is modeled on an old city map that locates the building.

Until recently, the former clothing store at the southeast corner of King and Mary streets had stood vacant for more than two decades, a most visible symbol of Upper King’s once sad state.

Today, the modest brick and stucco building has been resurrected as 492, a chic restaurant space that weaves together the city’s best kind of architecture: a blend of heroic preservation work with clever and complementary new design.

Architect Reggie Gibson, who worked on the transformation with architect Alicia Reed, says saving the building was more involved than many might imagine.

“Our structural engineers had voted it for the last five years the building in Charleston most likely to fall down,” he says. “It needed a patron.”

Many looked at fixing it up. Many ran away in fear.

The mid-19th-century building did crack during construction work but fortunately did not fall down.

A prominent part of the new design includes a southern addition, an enclosed piazza but with a more substantial purpose. This large steel and concrete structure essentially props up the older masonry building.

This glass addition is divided into two parts, one with mullions, which are vertical bars between the panes, that shows where the building’s original piazza would have stood and another without mullions to make the space more usable.

The corner table on the second floor, with its view of both the courtyard and street, is the best.

The design also includes an eastern addition that expands the first floor dining room and holds an outdoor herb and vegetable garden above.

“You can’t get more fresh than going up to your roof,” Reed says. An uneven cypress screen, made from leftover scraps, hides the building’s mechanical equipment. The wood was treated thermally, which Gibson says has been a long-standing practice used in Europe, and eventually will turn a silvery shade of gray.

Reed notes that what was left of the tin ceiling was removed and reused as cladding along the bar.

“Alicia put it out on the street and had a steamroller run over it,” Gibson says, “which flattened it out nicely.”

The new design includes other subtle decorative touches that celebrate its sense of place.

The rear mural, based on a photo of sous vide leeks, is made from buttons, a nod to the building’s past life as part of Upper King’s mercantile trade. The metal rail has a series of bends meant to conjure up marsh grass.

My favorite are the steel gates along King Street. Its unique angular design is a portion of the city’s street grid north of Calhoun. The red panel is the block south of Mary and west of King. The hole in the red panel is 492 King.

The next favorite is probably the font on the northern side that marks the building’s fire department connection.

For those intimately familiar with downtown’s design world, there’s been a simmering tension between the city’s fire inspection team, which wants very visible red-colored FDC signs, and the city’s architects, who would rather have more subtle signs that don’t call as much attention to themselves.

In recent months, the designers have made some progress. Recent FDC signs have been able to depart from the bright red and white colors, but the architects here get in their own poke.

The building’s FDC font is red, and it was used prominently in the Russian Revolution.

Overall, 492 is just the latest is a long line of restaurateurs rescuing and reusing historic but eclectic Charleston buildings.

Gibson is very familiar with the trend, having had a hand in projects such as Fleet Landing on Concord Street and Fish farther down King, which was another rescue about as heroic as 492.

He speculates that restaurants’ interest in inhabiting local buildings is an extension of the mindset of valuing locally grown produce and locally caught fish.

That’s probably true, and it’s a trend by no means unique to Charleston. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s blog, one of Boston’s hottest new night spots, the Alibi Bar & Lounge, recently opened in the former drunk tank of that city’s old Charles Street Jail, built in 1851.

And hopefully, it’s a trend that will continue to create uniquely appetizing and interesting public places.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified the name of the restaurant, which is 492.

Also, earlier versions did not indicate that the rear mural was based on a photo of sous vide leeks.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.