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Downtown Charleston's last endangered landmark may become its newest funky office building

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Downtown Charleston's last endangered landmark — the Old City Jail at 21 Magazine St. — could become one of its unique office buildings.

That's if Jason Ward has his way.

Ward, president of Landmark Enterprises, said his company has developed office, industrial and hotel projects across the Charleston area but never tackled anything quite like this.

The Old City Jail's exterior has chunks of missing stucco and exposed bricks where the masonry has eroded away. Ferns and even small trees have sprouted from its walls, windows and parapet. Large iron beams are anchored to two exterior walls to keep them from peeling away.

"It's staggering," Ward said as he looked at the building Friday. "It's so scary. It's so cool. It's so interesting."

Last year, Ward bought the building for $2 million from a corporation that had acquired it four months earlier from the American College of the Building Arts. The college recently moved out and into its newly renovated Trolley Barn on upper Meeting Street.

Next week, he will go before a city board to seek permission to move forward with this dream of renovating the building into modern offices. And he knows there will be a lot of public interest: That's partly what attracted him to this project in the first place.

"I've never been here without multiple tourists walking though the yard taking pictures of the building," he said. "That, to me, proved the building was special."

Structural flaws

Special, yes, but also deeply troubled.

The jail was built in three segments: a main series of cell blocks that opened in 1802. By 1859, a jailer's quarters was added closer to Magazine Street and a rear, octagonal cell block was added on the back.

After the 1886 earthquake, the city repaired the jail by replacing the floors in the 1802 section with a mix of steel and concrete. During the past century, the steel has rusted and expanded, causing the concrete floors to push against the exterior sides.

The College of the Building Arts, aided by a Save America's Treasures grant, was able to apply a Band-Aid: It removed chunks of those floors, built four interior steel towers and anchored the walls to them. Ward said the renovation work would remove all that and replace those floors with timber, as they originally were.

Other than the college's temporary work, the three-story building has seen minimal repairs since it was decommissioned as a jail in 1939. Since then, it has been used for a mix of storage, special events and ghost tours.

Ward said he appreciates the building as it is, and the planned restoration work would change as little as of the building's character as possible.

"With our design program, less is more," he said. "We don't want this to be polished. This was a jail."

jason ward old city jail

Jason Ward, president of Landmark Enterprises, Inc., speaks about plans to renovate the Old City Jail into an office space on Friday, July 21, 2017. Renovations could begin early next year. Marlena Sloss/ Staff

Many sets of eyes

His plans for the building soon will get ample scrutiny.

Since Landmark plans to use historic preservation tax credits as part of its financing, the details of all exterior and interior work must pass muster with the State Historic Preservation Office in Columbia.

And Charleston's Board of Architectural Review-Large will meet at 4:30 p.m. July 26 to review the exterior changes.

That work, developed by architect Jay White of Liollio Architecture, will essentially add a fourth addition to the building at its rear: a new elevator and stair tower. The addition will let the building comply with accessibility and fire codes without ripping up large sections of its interior.

The proposed addition would be minimal in size, and its materials — possibly bronze or copper and natural wood — would clearly distinguish it from the older building.

"It's meant to be a subtle but harmonious addition," White said. "We want materials that have the ability to patina, to reflect the richness of the patina that's on the jail right now."

The building's missing stucco also will be replaced, Ward said, largely because leaving the exposed brick would only cause more stucco to fail. But White said the work will try to ensure the existing stains and signs of age remain.

At least one person has raised an alarm. Sean Pike, who grew fond of the building ever since he ran around it as a small child, created the Old City Jail Foundation and sent out a recent statement urging its preservation.

But Pike said he is not necessarily opposed to Landmark Enterprises, and he plans to meet with the developer soon next week to learn more about the plans.

"It's part of our collective cultural history," Pike said. "A lot of bad stuff happened there, and a lot of national significance."

City Planner Jacob Lindsey said his staff has had information conversations about the planned work and is hopeful the project will be a good one.

"They're taking the right steps to preserve the structure and the site,” he said. "They're a responsible and serious owner that's seeking to restore the building in keeping with national preservation standards."

Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation, said he also expects to meet with Ward soon to review the plans. Hastie said he will reserve judgment until then.

"We will obviously review the proposal very carefully because that is an extremely important building," he said. "But as we all know, it needs to find a use so somebody can justify putting the money into it to fix it up. It needs a lot of work."

White said this might be the jail's last, best chance of getting fixed up by the private sector.

"This is going to be a very difficult project to execute," he said. "It's obviously not in good condition right now. This is probably one of the last major preservation exercises left on the peninsula — so many buildings have already been through restoration. This building has gotten to the point of decline where it's now a critical issue."

'Not for everybody'

If all those reviews go relatively smoothly, then Ward said he hopes construction would could begin early next year and finish in 2019.

The building will continue to be accessible for tours during that work, he said. Bulldog Tours currently leads small groups through the building by appointment.

Ward has not lined up any tenants so far — and doesn't plan to sign any leases until he gets a firmer grip on the scope and cost of the work. But he said interest has been "incredible," partly because the market for downtown office space is strong.

The vision for the Old City Jail is not unlike the recent renovation of the Cigar Factory, which took a long-vacant industrial space and cleaned it up with relatively few changes. That project has won awards from preservationists — and also has attracted a host of new tenants.

Ward said the interior configuration of the jail, like the Cigar Factory, includes several large spaces uninterrupted by columns or partitions — the kind of open plan that many businesses seek in an office these days.

Before buying the jail, Ward said he took 10 prospective office clients by to tour it. "Eight of them loved it," he said. "Two of them didn't want to get out of their car."

"It's not for everybody," he said, "but this is a project that's necessary to protect this jail. This is going to restore this property for many generations to come, and we need the community to embrace it — and for office tenants who want to be there — to make it happen."

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