Citadel expert looks to next lunar step

Citadel assistant professor of physics Luke Sollitt

From the street, the early 20th century brick and stucco building at 11 1/2 St. Philip St. is completely obscured by vines.

And that might be its good side.

Viewed from the south, from the clay and sandy site that soon will house the newly rebuilt Memminger Elementary School, one can see most all of its flaws: a failing terra cotta tile roof, structural cracks, missing windows, and still more vines.

The Charleston County School District has owned this historic structure since it was first built for use as a school administration building in the early 1920s.

But since the district stopped using it in the early 1980s, it has suffered from the one-two punch of Hurricane Hugo and a generation of neglect.

It likely wouldn't be strong enough to survive another hurricane, says project director Robert Faust of Cumming/SMG, which has been working with the School District to try to save it.

The architecture is interesting, a sort of Spanish Colonial Revival style not commonly found in Charleston. After all, the city grew from an English colony that considered Spain a chief adversary. The series of arched windows on the second floor near St. Philip Street allowed light into the main meeting room.

As bad as the building looks from the outside, it's worse inside, as the bright red sign on the front door forewarns.

Decades of water damage has caused walls and stairs to fail. Bill Lewis, the district's Chief Operating Officer of Capital Programs, can walk inside but not up its stairs, which is partly gone, nor deep into its other rooms, where chunks of plaster and lathe have folded down.

School Board Vice Chair Ann Oplinger says she tried to get people interested in the building when she served as Memminger's principal from 1991 until several years ago.

"I think it's interesting architecturally," she says. "I complained about it all the time. I cared about that building and how nothing was being done."

But with the schools themselves needing so much work -- and with no identified use -- she had no luck.

Lewis says the district is seeking a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant for almost $800,000. If approved, the district would chip in the rest for a $1.06 million project that would gut the failed interior, repair the roof and solve its other structural problems.

"That would get us a good shell," Faust says.

The city received a similar grant as part of its Dock Street Theatre restoration.

In essense, the building would be able to withstand future hurricanes and earthquakes, but it would still need more work once a new user was found.

Lewis and Faust say they're working to create as competitive an application as possible. Ideally, the district would get the OK next year and be able to include the work in its construction contract for rebuilding Memminger next door.

And fixing the shell could make it easier for the district to find a partner willing to tackle the rest of its rehabilitation. After all, it will have a $1 million head start.

If the grant doesn't pan out, however, this will remain among Charleston's most endangered buildings and could easily be lost.

"The conventional wisdom is the vines are holding this up," Lewis says.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or rbehre@postandcourier.com