‘Sky Residence’ takes flight

A new residence (seen at upper right), built above Blue Ion at 301 King St., is a steel, wood and glass home with a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces.

Ever since King Street evolved into Charleston’s main commercial street, people have lived above its shops, but never quite like this.

The new residence built above 301 King St., actually above Blue Ion at 301-B King, is more strikingly contemporary than most anything built downtown in recent memory.

The steel, wood and glass home is designed to maximize views of the surrounding historic district and provide a mix of quality indoor and outdoor spaces that define the city’s best urban homes.

Some might wonder why the city’s architectural gatekeepers allowed this and not Clemson University’s equally modern architecture center, and the answer revolves largely around how visible it is.

Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation, which supported this home but not the center, says he feels Charlestonians “are closet modernists,” meaning they welcome modern architecture as long as it doesn’t compete with historic buildings and streetscapes.

For instance, architect W.G. Clark designed a few modern residences below Broad Street that got the city’s blessing, largely because they were hidden from the street. His iconic Middleton Inn also is nestled away from that plantation’s historic house and gardens.

The so-called “Sky Residence” can barely be glimpsed from King. The only good view is from Liberty Street or along the new alley east of the College of Charleston’s George Street Apartments.

City Architect and Preservation Officer Dennis Dowd agrees and says the design didn’t stir much of a fuss at the Board of Architectural Review.

“Most people felt it was going to be minimally visible. They also felt that it was a pretty cool design and were generally pretty supportive,” he says. “I’ve heard nothing but good comments. I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘Oh, my God, how did that happen?’ ”

The residence was almost a decade in the works, beginning with Rich Yessian’s purchase of the right to build above the existing building at 301-B King. That building was renovated as office space for Blue Ion, a web and marketing firm where Yessian is both a partner and the technology director.

Yessian says his first thought was simply to lift a modest, modular “crash pad” onto the roof, but as architect Kevan Hoertdoerfer began sketching some ideas, the project grew into something new.

“It’s hard to say no when he’s showing me a rendering of outdoor decking and an outdoor pool, which turned into a hot tub,” Yessian says.

The ultimate design was a unique collaboration between Yessian, Hoertdoerfer, structural engineer Russell Rosen and Andy Meihaus of Renew Urban Charleston.

Meihaus says the biggest challenge was working through the structural issues and figuring out how much the design-build project would cost.

The residence rests on about 18 steel columns, each about 4 inches by 4 inches, plus a central I-beam sunk through Blue Ion’s space during its earlier office renovation. That renovation work also included strengthening its walls with gunite to support a home floating over the roof.

An early plan to build with concrete and steel was scrapped because the concrete was too heavy. Also, about 15 feet on the home’s southern side had to be cantilevered over a large air handling unit for the Apple store.

“I was at Russell’s office for five to six months trying to figure out how to make this work,” Meihaus says.

The home has about 2,200 square feet inside, and about 1,000 more square feet of outdoor decking and terraces.

Its main room features 12-foot-high ceilings, exposed steel beams and expansive glass windows that serve up an amazing view of King Street rooftops and other distant landmarks, from the John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square to the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, and many church steeples.

It also features glass doors and windows that open onto an outdoor walk.

“You have this beautiful view, but you feel sheltered here in the home,” Hoertdoerfer says.

The roof area also is used. There are solar panels and succulent plants above the main room, while decks over both bedrooms feature a hot tub, fire table, outdoor furniture and shade cloths.

Meihaus says David Williamson and Tom Bryan helped a great deal with their specialized work with steel and wood, respectively.

From the ground, the building’s most distinctive feature is its 20 moveable panels of structural fiberglass louvers.

Hoertdoerfer notes these panels can be adjusted for shade and privacy, and continue the city’s tradition of partially screened spaces.

But Yessian says he appreciates them mostly because they can be moved to give his home a different look. “It’s definitely an aesthetic thing more than anything else,” he says.

The Sky Residence wouldn’t work in many places downtown. Yessian’s immediate neighbors are a tall new dorm and parking garage, the college’s contemporary School of Business, a modest one-story store and the nondescript 1950s brick building underneath.

It may surprise some that so many in Charleston were so supportive of something so new, but they should keep in mind that the home’s architecture is as unique as its site.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.