BEHRE COLUMN: For Mendel building, paint or not to paint?

The first two floors of the Mendel Rivers Federal Building along Charlotte Street show how they appear with a grayer limewash than that applied to the corner in back. Both treatments will help the Board of Architectural Review decide if any of the brick should be painted.

Robert Behre

Call it the debate before the debate.

The new owner of the Mendel Rivers Federal Building on Marion Square is making progress with converting this long-vacant office building into Hotel Dewberry, but a significant aesthetic question is bubbling behind the scenes.

Namely: Should the building’s brick be painted to give it a more monochromatic appearance? If so, should the brick be given a whitish hue to match the building marble panels and window surrounds or a more grayish hue that picks up the darker shade in the stone? Or should its exterior architecture remain as it is?

The city’s Board of Architectural Review ultimately will have the final say, but the issue has not been placed on its agenda so far.

But that doesn’t mean nothing is going on. Dewberry Capital and its design team have been working with the city staff to discuss the issue, and they have painted two separate samples so they — and others — can see what’s at stake.

Tim Keane, director of the city of Charleston’s Planning, Preservation and Sustainability Department, said the city has been going back and forth on the question.

It’s not an insignificant issue. The prominent building lines Charleston’s most central (and most used) park.

“There’s been debate about whether the painting of the building would make it more pleasing, from a view far away, or whether it would be a negative thing,” Keane said. “There’s also been discussion about the history of the building and how it’s important to preserve the original brickwork and the original design of the building.”

“There are different opinions about it, so we haven’t made a final decision about our recommendation,” he added.

The upside is there’s plenty of time for the public to weigh in. Just glance at the building’s corners along Charlotte Street to see examples on the second and third floors.

Keane said he personally likes the idea of a wash over the brick.

“What it looks like now to me is a prison,” he said. “This is of course what we refer to as the ugly era of American architecture.”

“I personally have thought the painting of the building would accentuate the positive attributes, so I was hoping to find a solution that others found pleasing and supportable. I’m not sure we’ll get there yet.”

Keane’s probably right that it may be impossible to get a consensus on what looks best. This would be far from the first time that’s happened in this city.

I like the whiter hue because it would enhance the shadows and interest from the building’s window pattern. While I’m excited to see the building get a new look to match its new use, I feel even more strongly about this: So as long as there’s a sort of standoff in public opinion, shouldn’t the owner be allowed to do what he wants to do?

After all, this is just paint. It’s not an irreversible decision (if it were, there would be no way that the city would have allowed the samples along Charlotte Street).

And preservationists who think the building’s original appearance is best can take consolation in the fact that Dewberry Capital is preserving the building in the first place. Many in the city wanted to see it razed, but that’s now off the table.

Charleston’s buildings should be allowed to evolve as they change from offices or warehouses to hotels to apartments to restaurants. And as long as their changes don’t remove historic fabric or aren’t deemed too jarring, then shouldn’t aesthetic ties be broken by the building’s owners?

After all, the Board of Architectural Review’s political survival stems from its perception as a force for good common sense rather than from a sense that it always knows best.

Reach Robert Behre at

937-5771 or rbehre@postandcourier.com