Calhoun Street landmark gets new lease on life

The facade at 121 Calhoun St. has been restored to its original design, thanks to surviving historical photographs.

The grand three-story building at 121 Calhoun St. recently turned 100, and as a sort of centennial coincidence, it also is emerging from a renovation that has restored its facade to its original look.

The former Harleston-Boags Funeral Home is getting a new life as an office.

It has been a landmark of the city’s black history for decades, built by Captain Edwin Harleston, a black planter who formed a funeral home with his brother Robert in 1896. They moved the location from 225 Meeting St. to a new building at 121 Calhoun in 1914.

As Jonathan Poston notes in his “Buildings of Charleston,” the building was built in the traditional Charleston vernacular style. Thomas Pinckney was the architect, and Cassey Smalls was the builder.

It originally housed an office, showroom, morgue and a chapel with a 150-person capacity.

It also hosted some of the city’s earliest meetings of the NAACP and was visited by W.E.B. Dubois, Mary McLeod Bethune and other prominent black leaders.

But its glory days were largely gone when the funeral home offered the property for sale, and Lang Tarrant of Tarrant Commercial Real Estate stepped in.

Working with Neil Stevenson Architects and the Charles Blanchard Construction Corp., Tarrant began converting the building into a more open, and handicapped accessible, space suitable for modern offices.

Their effort got an exciting boost when the city shared an early 20th-century photo that showed the elegance of the building’s original facade. While the two upper floors never were altered much, the first floor had been bricked in with an unfortunate and unappealing design.

Stevenson says the greater challenge was dealing with the east and west walls, which had been covered over by asbestos siding. They also had no air barrier, such as felt paper, or insulation.

“Asbestos siding was the wonder material of its age. Besides being resistant to rot and termites, it was also a fire retardant, low maintenance and inexpensive,” Stevenson says. “It was usually installed in lieu of repairing siding in poor condition.”

Tarrant wanted to remove the asbestos siding and also wanted the building to be more energy efficient, but Stevenson says a challenge emerged because the buildings’ early wooden siding was warped from being baked under the asbestos siding for decades.

It also was compromised from “a crazy amount” of nail holes used to attach the asbestos.

An early estimate that only 20 percent of the siding could be salvaged didn’t sit well with the city and preservationists, and while Stevenson says he generally agrees with their philosophy of keeping original fabric, “I felt this was a special case.”

With patched siding and a new air conditioning system, warm, moist air would waft into the wall cavity and then condense when meeting the cooler, drier interior air. “This little chemistry experiment would happen somewhere between the exterior siding and the interior wallboard — most likely inside the wall cavity, against the interior wallboard thus creating the perfect breeding ground for mold and decay.”

Eventually, the city and specialists allowed the removal of some sections and the addition of a vapor barrier.

Inside, nonstructural interior walls were taken down, opening up the floors to very spacious volumes, particularly as each floor already started with very high ceilings.

The renovated ground level facade also revealed a relatively unusual throughway alley on the right, or west, side.

Stevenson speculates it was created because there originally was a building right on the property line, a building lost decades ago, before the hotel currently at Meeting and Calhoun streets opened.

The throughway has been framed by a stand-alone brick wall running on or near the property line, but Tarrant says that wall could come down soon.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.