Meeting St. meets much modernity

The new office building at 174 Meeting Street, just south of the City Market, was designed by former City Architect Eddie Bello, now with McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture. It's one of the street's few new buildings that feature wood prominently in the design.

Perhaps no Charleston street has changed as much in recent times as Meeting Street.

Just in the past two years, several new offices, schools and hotels have opened in the mile north of the old city walls at Cumberland Street.

While the architecture of any one of these particular new buildings might not gain much attention or awards, their combined presence is worthy of note. If nothing else, they show how a city that holds its history so tight also is busy writing new chapters all the time.

That Meeting Street is seeing so much rebuilding is nothing new. For at least two generations, it has seen significant changes as the Mendel Rivers Federal Building (at Marion Square), the Charleston Museum (360 Meeting), Charleston Place (205 Meeting), the Bank of America Building (200), NBSC (158 Meeting), the Wells Fargo Bank building (177 Meeting), the AT&T Building (385 Meeting), the Bi-Lo (445 Meeting) and the TD Arena (301 Meeting).

The most interesting of the latest buildings is the office building that just opened at 174 Meeting St., partly because its design, while substantial, successfully recalls the street's history as a mix of institutional buildings and grand homes.

Its materials, a mix of brick and beautifully stained wood, also seem the most warm and familiar, though the building, despite its sort of abstract riff on a Charleston side home, in no way replicates an earlier architectural style. And it just looks cool.

The least successful may be 400 Meeting St., an apartment building aimed at students. While its mix of materials and entry recesses help break up its mass, its design seems driven mostly by maximum profit and minimum Board of Architectural Review compliance. Maybe that's why the pictures on its marketing website include images of Rainbow Row and many young, healthy coeds.

In its defense, it likely will hold up better than the suburban-looking apartments just across the street at 411 Meeting.

The new Charleston Progressive Academy also offers a rather unfriendly shoulder on Meeting, with a numbing series of metal louvers just north of Ann, but it gets much more interesting as the new school meets old at Meeting and Mary and farther east on Ann.

As with Buist Academy and James Simons Elementary, Charleston Progressive's appeal stems from new construction complementing fragments of the original schools.

Most of Meeting Street's other new construction didn't have that opportunity, building on sites that either were abandoned or contained metal storage buildings.

The new Holiday Inn at 425 Meeting is like that, and it's design is broken into several distinct masses both east-west and between the lower three and top two floors. Its corner entry is a mix of metal and glass.

And the new Elan Midtown apartments at 441 Meeting also were built on a wasteland, but their most interesting feature isn't their exterior skin but the way the large building returns to an architectural tradition of a large open courtyard.

All this new architecture seems to have followed the advice that famed architecture writer and educator Paul Goldberger gave when he visited the city several years ago: Style should not be absolute, but height, scale and mass should be.

Whatever complaints one hears about any of these new buildings, most of which don't look like old Charleston but instead a bit like new Charlotte, they're not too tall.

Meanwhile, the stylistic change seems sure to keep coming, particularly as Clemson seeks to build its daring new architecture center at Meeting and George streets.

Last October, Clemson officials and Portland, Ore., architect Brad Cloepfil were set to submit their controversially novel design, marked by a curving concrete wall perforated with oval openings and a highly transparent front along Meeting, to the city's Board of Architectural Review. They were thwarted when not enough board members could be rounded up, and many have been puzzled why it has taken so long for their return.

Rick Goodstein, Clemson's dean of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, says the school has hired Choate Construction and continues to refine the design, which could be presented in June or July, and construction could begin not long after that.

"We'll be ready to move quickly. I think that's the beauty of having our contractor on board," Goodstein says. "All systems will be go."

And the street will meet yet another chapter.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.