PRINT LEDE Fireproof Building

Glenn Keyes and Richard Marx make their way down the steps in the Fireproof Building. Brad Nettles/Staff

Columbia has the South Carolina State Museum, but by next summer, Charleston will have a museum of its own that will interpret the state's history, in a different sort of way.

For decades, the South Carolina Historical Society housed its vast collection inside the city's Fireproof Building just north of Broad and Meeting streets. But the archive was so lightly visited — it often limited visitors to no more than 13 at a time — that some joked it was like a speakeasy.

That collection is now housed at the College of Charleston, and the society is renovating the Fireproof Building into a museum and event venue, with big changes to make it more accessible and interesting to residents and visitors.

The museum will tell the state's history through the eyes of different early historical figures, ranging from the Cassique of Kiawah to colonial agricultural pioneer Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Priscilla, a slave owned by the Ball family. It will highlight some of the special items in the society's collections, such as Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion's powder horn.

It also will tell the story of the Fireproof Building itself, one of the state's most historic government buildings.

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Fireproof Building

Old photo of the 1973 renovation of the Fireproof Building. Brad Nettles/Staff

Collection versus building

When the new museum opens its doors in June, it will mark the culmination of two long-running changes that have faced the historical society for years.

The nonprofit traces its roots back to 1855, when several South Carolina men met at Otranto Plantation to discuss forming a new historical society after similar ones created in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. Three years later, the society acquired the papers of Henry Laurens, a wealthy and influential colonial and Revolutionary War figure.

The society's collection would grow in bursts, and it eventually moved into the Fireproof Building in the mid-20th century. The society bought the building from the county in 1980.

Since then, the collection continued to grow into the state's largest private collection of books, letters, journals and other documents.

But society officials also grew more aware of the problems in trying to store all those valuable materials in a historic 19th century building with limited temperature and humidity controls.

Society Director Faye Jensen said organization leaders realized the conflict between caring for the collection and caring for the building even before she arrived in 2008.

"I just felt it wasn't the best location for a manuscript location," she said. "At the same time, you have the thought, 'Oh my gosh, we're in this beautiful building and nobody is coming in.' 

"We thought about building a separate archival branch, a brown box somewhere," she added. "We thought about leaving the Fireproof Building altogether, which was not at all acceptable to our board members. It had become our image. We use it in our logo."

Ultimately, it opted to move most of its collection to the College of Charleston's Addlestone Library, which not only offered superior climate control but also much more space for researchers and for the society's growing collection.

And it also offered the opportunity that some society leaders had longed for: a chance to turn the Fireproof Building into a museum.

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Fireproof Building

Glenn Keyes listens as Director Faye Jensen talks about the exhibits that will be on display in the Fireproof Building. Brad Nettles/Staff

Renovating with a light touch 

When the Fireproof Building first opened its doors in December 1826, the city already had suffered three major fires.

At the time, it was considered ideal for storing records because its brick, brownstone and stucco weren't flammable, and its ample windows — whose sashes were made of metal, not wood — provided natural light that lessened the need for candles.

A major thrust behind its renovation was to make it more accessible. What was a lightly visited archive soon will become a museum expected to draw about 40,000 visitors a year, according to Society Assistant Director John Tucker.

First, the main entrance will be moved from the second floor portico on Chalmers Street to a ground level door facing Washington Park.

"The game changer is the entrance moving from the north side to the south side," architect Glenn Keyes said. "There's no backside to this building." Visitors may enter off Meeting Street through a newly opened wrought iron gate that has been locked for 40 years.

Inside, one of the building's barrel vaults was punctured to run a new elevator, which will make the building handicapped accessible for the first time.

"It's just the right thing to do," Keyes said of the elevator. "It's going to be a museum and an entertainment venue, so you have to make it user-friendly."

Contractor Richard Marks notes that when workers removed the brick vaulting, the building was so well constructed that the vaults supported themselves.

"They didn't skimp on anything," he said of the original builders.

The biggest challenge was finding places in the solid brick and stone building to run ducts and conduit for electricity, wi-fi, smoke detectors and security cameras.

"Our goal is you never know we were here," Marks said, "that it looked like it did before we started."

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Fireproof Building

The South Carolina Historical Society is renovating the city's Fireproof Building just north of Broad and Meeting streets. After the renovation is completed the space will be used as a museum and an event venue. Brad Nettles/Staff

'What Mills intended'

While both the Fireproof Building and the S.C. State Museum seek to tell the story of South Carolina's history, the society's museum will sort of be the opposite of its Columbia counterpart, which began in 1988 with a sprawling former cotton mill and a need to fill it with exhibits.

The society has collected pieces of history for more than 160 years and has a much smaller display space.

Jensen said when she and her staff first sat down with exhibit designers, other Charleston museums were more on their minds.

"People with historical interest have a lot of options here, and we have to be different," she said.

So the decision was made to cover South Carolina and also tell stories that get less attention elsewhere, such as the Charleston Renaissance, the city's artistic flowering between World Wars I and II.

"We're really looking at filling in some gaps," she said. "There's no sense of competition."

The Fireproof Building also will pay tribute to Robert Mills, Charleston's first native trained architect who designed several courthouses and other significant buildings around the state before moving to Washington, D.C., and gaining even greater fame as the designer of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Treasury Building next to the White House.

"We felt the building ought to be a tribute to him as well as our collection," Jensen said.

A series of touch screens and touch tables will give visitors an ability to scan some of the society's documents.

"We knew we had to be interactive because we've accumulated so much material," she said. "The biggest challenge is what of our collection do we want to display because our collection is so vast."

The cost of the renovation and exhibits will be about $4.5 million, and the society hopes its admission revenue and rental income cover that cost.

"We are being very frugal on the front end, working with a lot of staff people and asking them to take on a little bit more," Jensen said, adding that the society has hired an education coordinator and expects its budget to rise by about 30 percent. 

In recent decades, the society has broadened its outreach across the state. Its board of managers once lived and met in almost exclusively Charleston, but today's board now represents a geographical cross section of the state and holds half its meetings in different cities.

The scaffolding around the building comes down this month, and construction should be largely finished by year's end. Then the exhibit installation will begin, and the society hopes for a grand reopening in June.

Tucker said the museum will have an important role in telling the history of South Carolina from the many perspectives of those who lived through it — and an important role in opening up one of Charleston's most historic civic landmarks.

"We're very excited about bringing the public into the building," Tucker said, "It was what Mills intended."

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Fireproof Building

The South Carolina Historical Society is renovating the city's Fireproof Building just north of Broad and Meeting streets. After the renovation is completed the space will be used as a museum and an event venue. Brad Nettles/Staff

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.