The palatial Masonic Hall building at 270 King St. is believed to be one of Charleston's first air-conditioned buildings — if not its very first.
It's certainly one of the first buildings messed up because of air conditioning.
Around the time the early air-conditioning unit was installed several decades ago, the building's owners undertook an unfortunate, if understandable, attempt to insulate it. Its signature Gothic windows along King and Wentworth streets were filled in, shrunk to rectangular openings a fraction of the windows' original size.
But these windows are expected to be restored soon in what could be one of King Street's most dramatic makeovers in years.
A new developer, East West Partners, recently bought the building's upper two floors last month for $4.4 million and plans to redevelop the space into 12 condominiums. The East West team already has been quietly seeking input from the city and local preservation community on its ambitious plans.
"I'm thrilled they're doing it," said Preservation Society Director Kristopher King, who was part of an unsuccessful rehab attempt a decade ago. "They are tackling what everybody understands is one of the greatest real estate challenges in Charleston. Fully restored, it becomes one of King Street's signature buildings."
'They don't look up'
The building at 270 King St. was designed by John Henry Devereux, the 19th-century Charleston architect who also designed St. Matthew's Lutheran and Emanuel AME churches, as well as the federal courthouse and post office at Broad and Meeting streets.
For King Street, the building was an anomaly. Most buildings on King are most dramatic on the ground floors, where the pedestrians and storefronts are. Their upper floors often were more modest spaces to live or do office work.
But the Grand Lodge of Ancient Freemasons of South Carolina wanted to build its large assembly areas on the second and third floors. Its Grand Lodge Room on the second floor measured 60 feet by 70 feet and could seat more than 1,000.
"Walls were blocked off with imitation stone," according to a 1982 description in The News and Courier, "and the ceiling was corniced and enriched." The third floor contained another lodge room capable of seating 600.
The original building apparently had some structural problems, and the Masons undertook some extensive structural work not long after it opened in late 1872. It struck a deal with the Washington Light Infantry to lease part of the space, a deal that helped defray the added repair cost.
The Masons built conventional retail space along King Street that the organization leased out. Their entrance was tucked around the corner on Wentworth.
That unique arrangement — grand assembly spaces built above retail — would prove one of the challenges to keeping the building in use. There are reasons why the upper floors were sitting empty for so many decades.
But even in their stripped-down state, the 20-foot ceilings are among the city's tallest, especially for something built before the 20th century, when steel opened up new structural possibilities.
"There are a lot of people who walk by this building and don't notice it," said Miller Harper, managing partner of East West Partners in Charleston. "They don't look up."
'We're still working'
Harper said he has eyed 270 King St. since East West Partners opened a Charleston office, and when he got word before Memorial Day that it was coming up for sale, he changed his holiday plans.
The due diligence involved coming to terms with three main challenges: The property has no parking on site; the property was divided up so the upper two floors are owned separately from the ground-floor retail spaces, which weren't part of the sale; and modern codes would require a second exit from the upper floors to the street.
They began tackling those problems, finding a dozen parking spaces they could lease on a nearby property — one for each residential unit. They found a way to build a new staircase that could lead down to Wentworth, just east of the existing entry door.
They walked the vast, interior spaces that remain stripped down to studs and rafters from the past decade's redevelopment efforts that started but stalled. King served as a consultant on at least one attempt and said the Masons left very little behind when they moved out in the mid-20th century. A maze of partitions were added over time, likely around the time air conditioning was introduced.
"We probably uncovered an additional 8,000 square feet we didn't know existed," King said.
Miller brought architect Kevan Hoertdoerfer, structural engineer Rick Lambert and Trident Construction into the space to figure out a new floor plan and other next steps.
"We're still working to get the floor plans right with Kevan," said Graham Worsham, East West's sales and marketing executive. It's unclear when the 1,800-square-foot units might go up for sale — or what they might cost.
"We love the building and what it could be," Harper said. "We think these will be some of the most iconic residences in Charleston."
While East West plans to reopen the windows to their original flat arches — about 18 feet tall at the peak on the second floor and 12 feet tall on the third — they still are figuring out which materials should be used to make the new windows. The team has studied old photos, looking for clues.
"We know they were wood or metal, but we don't know which one," Harper said. "We've debated that up and down."
Will Hamilton of the Historic Charleston Foundation said the foundation also has met with Harper and Hoertdoerfer and is comfortable with the direction of their plans. Hamilton said the foundation is mostly interested in what the new windows will look like. The city's Board of Architectural Review already has given conceptual approval.
"If they’re going to try to re-create those windows, the materials are going to be very important," Hamilton said, adding research also hasn't concluded whether the window surrounds were stucco or brownstone or even cast iron.
Harper said East West plans to start construction work in the first part of next year and finish in 2021. Aside from restoring the original window openings, the only other exterior change people may notice is new stucco and a new color.
"We're not trying to do anything dramatic on the outside," he said. "The outside is already dramatic enough."