SUMMERVILLE -- There's no question the new town hall annex is the most significant piece of architecture added here in years, though there do appear to be some questions as to how successful it is.
The annex, designed by Liollio Architecture, has many tasks, including providing more office and meeting space for the town government without disrupting the symmetry and dominance of the familiar 1960s Town Hall next door; adding 227 more parking spaces for downtown and strengthening the retail feel of West Richardson Avenue.
The complex is one of those buildings that wouldn't make any sense if built somewhere else (much like downtown Charleston's French Quarter Inn and its new County Judicial Center),
The architects asked town residents for guidance, which explains the prominent bell tower that recalls -- but doesn't copy -- a bell tower that had been part of Summerville's late 19th century town hall.
"Summerville has a strong sense of itself," says architect Jay White with Liollio. "Summerville knows who they want to project (themselves) to be."
The residents also liked the metal sign that once curved over the highway into town that read "Welcome to Flowertown," and White says that was reinterpreted in the curve of the bridge linking the old Town Hall with the new one.
White says the plaza between the old town hall and the annex continues the old, small Main Street that once ran through the same space, and this public space fans out near Richardson to create an attractive area for people to pass between the building, parking garage and downtown.
The shops built along Richardson Avenue as part of the complex may be the most successful element, not only because these spaces strengthen the street but also because they could be used by town government at some future point.
The trickier question is the tower and main stair.
"We wanted the main stair to be immediately adjacent to the bell tower," White says. "By making it open, light and airy, we're encouraging people to use it and not just use the elevator."
But to architect Dennis Ashley, whose office is just about a block away, it doesn't work.
"It's spectacular by itself but completely out of context with the history of Summerville," he says. "Right off the bat, where is the front door? We have multiple symbols, but this grand stairway is a stair to nothing. It overlooks the back of mechanical systems on roofs."
One neat element is that the glass wall along the stair reflects part of the neighboring bell tower, providing the illusion that the tower is free-standing from one perspective.
The decision to put the Town Council Chambers on the third floor may seem odd -- one that could hamper accessibility -- but doing so enables it to have a grander volume with a taller ceiling that wouldn't have been possible on the first floor. Its paneling and dais are done in pine, a natural given the town's "Flowertown in the Pines" past.
Ashley also has problems with the large black stucco wall on the internal part of the complex -- a design element that helps mask the color difference between the annex's real brick and the garage's faux (formed in concrete) brick.
"The scale of it is like the factory district in a New England mill town rather than a charming old southern city," he says. "How does this say old Southern charming town? That's the bottom takeaway. Let's look at the big picture -- where are we at, how does this fit? Does it complement what we're doing? I don't think so."
The Town Hall also has come under fire from some because of its $13 million price tag, but if a town isn't willing to invest in itself, who else should be?
It's what you get for the money that counts, and if this building stirs debate about how the town should -- and shouldn't -- change, then that's of value, too.