For more than 60 years the Preservation Society of Charleston's prestigious Carolopolis Awards have been presented to centuries-old homes and buildings in the historic district of the peninsula.
But at least one of the 14 awards this year, to be given Thursday night at the Riviera Theatre, has broken the mold and represents a sign that preservation efforts are branching beyond traditions.
The award is for the remarkable transformation of a former school, built in mid-1940s, in the heart of West Ashley. The school closed in 1978 and the building was occupied as a nursing home until 2011.
John Hagerty and Susan Simons, as well as contractor Jon Goldfarb with Riverland Builders, will receive the award for the purchase and renovation of the former Albemarle Elementary School in the Avondale neighborhood.
Now known as The Schoolhouse, the 25,000-square-foot building features 21 “co-working” office spaces and offers an event venue complete with a health department-approved commercial kitchen.
Hagerty, an attorney and partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, says they were delighted to hear they would be receiving the award and admits, “I had a hard time not telling people that we won it.”
Hagerty credits Simons, his wife and a former Charleston County School Board member, for being the creative genius behind the renovation.
The award is not the first recognition of their project. Both participated in an Urban Land Institute panel discussion last fall that Hagerty says made him feel a bit out of place.
"It was remarkable how I walked away (from the panel discussion) thinking who were those people because we didn’t feel that smart when we started the renovations," says Hagerty. "It came together in a way that was very delightful."
Their journey started in 2015 at the same time city of Charleston officials started talking about efforts to revitalize West Ashley, often viewed as a suburban underachiever to historic Charleston.
A fellow attorney, Tim Zwerner, alerted Hagerty to the opportunity the school building offered and he checked it out. Hagerty wasn't convinced of its potential at first.
"I went away from it thinking about other things I’d want to invest in and I kept coming back to it. I liked the location. It was adjacent to Magnolia Park in that up-and-coming neighborhood. It was close to the city and it had parking," says Hagerty.
Hagerty and Simons bought it for $1.4 million in December 2015 and then spent $1.6 million renovating it in 2016.
One month after they received a certificate of occupancy in March 2017, all the offices were occupied with tenants from a range of businesses and nonprofits. The Charleston Parks Conservancy leases a 4,000-square-foot addition on the back of the former school.
The age of the building and its location is an indication that the Preservation Society of Charleston is encouraging sensitivity in restoring significant buildings well beyond the traditionally recognized historic district on the peninsula, preservationists say.
Preservation Society Executive Director Kristopher King acknowledges that the project is "really a piece of 1950s architecture, which is certainly not your usual Carolopolis (recipient) by any means."
"It (the former Albemarle school) really is an important cultural site for West Ashley, but the building was in very poor condition and the conversation had begun about demolition," says King.
"They (Hagerty and Simons) came in and brought this landmark gathering place back to life, fortunately in a role that serves the community. For us, we’re really excited to be recognizing an important part of West Ashley’s history. This is a project that demonstrates a very sensitive, gentle adaptive re-use."
King adds that adapting a school building can be challenging, particularly if the owner seeks to retain "character-defining features." Among those are retaining and adding oak flooring, adapting the former auditorium and cafeteria into an event space and keeping a room, known by former students who still live in the community, as "The Music Room."
One common denominator for all the tenants of the building is a skylight and glassed-in community conference room in the middle of the building.
"This is a well-done project. You can walk through this building that’s now serving as a community gathering place with a lot of functions going on and yet you still know you’re in the Albemarle Elementary School ... It provides a living link to the present community."
Apparently it won't be an exception.
King says The Schoolhouse will be among other award winners, the rest of which are technically a secret until Thursday, that will continue a trend of the nonprofit continuing to broaden its scope geographically.
The society is encouraged to see that the sensitivity shown in restoring and renovating homes and buildings in the historic district, overseen by the Charleston Board of Architectural Review, is now being exercised beyond those boundaries, King says.
“It speaks to the value that the market recognizes — the value of historic preservation and that it’s not being mandated but rather sought out by the property owners. That’s always significant to us.”
The selection for Carolopolis awards takes about a year.
Property owners, architects and contractors apply for the award in a process that ends in the summer of the prior year. The society staff reviews the projects, which include before-and-after photographs and historical documentation, and rely on the Secretary of Interior's standards for treatment of historic building for renovation and restorations.
King notes, though, that increasingly the society also looks at new "infill" projects that are compatible with the surrounding neighborhood or business district.
Applicants usually are self-selective, submitting projects that they already have a good idea will be likely winners. As a result, King says the staff typically selects 50 to 60 percent of the submissions for awards, which usually fall in the range of eight to 12 a year.
Regardless, King says they are often faced with tough decisions, telling otherwise remarkable projects that they didn't follow preservation standards, such as replacing a circular column with a square one.
"I’ll be honest. We have to write letters to applicants and a lot of times end up on the phone with them," says King. "It’s tough because we know the homeowners and the builders have a tremendous amount of pride and huge investments in these projects, but this is a program that’s been around since 1953. The standard is the standard."