Hotel Bennett

Charleston's two main preservation groups fought for years to lower the proposed height of Hotel Bennett (center), spurred by concerns it would overwhelm the historic, Old Citadel (right). Robert Behre/Staff

After the 1980s battle over Charleston Place — which was among the most intense development fights that the city has seen in its long history — there was the fight over Hotel Bennett.

More than a decade ago, as developer Mike Bennett laid plans for his grand new namesake property on Marion Square, preservation groups fought back hard, specifically over its height.

Would it simply be too tall?

Some feared Bennett's eight-story building would tower over the Old Citadel, the hotel's eastern neighbor and the square's primary historic landmark. More broadly, they objected to a height they felt was out of character with the historic city, which since has seen a deluge of taller buildings going up.

The preservationists took their case to the state's highest court, lost and pretty much moved on.

But they have few regrets. One principle of Charleston's Board of Architectural Review is this: “New construction should be sympathetic to the historic features that characterize its setting and context. To respect the significance of the historic context, the new work should respect the historic materials, features, size, scale, proportions, and massing of its setting.”

What the word "respect" means in that context can be subjective. Winslow Hastie, CEO of the Historic Charleston Foundation, offered a mixed critique of the building that ultimately took shape.

"Is it the end of the world? No, it’s not. It’s big. Architecturally, I think there are aspects of it that are underwhelming," he said. "Everyone focuses so much on the Marion Square elevation, and that’s great, but I think there’s such missed opportunities. Traveling east on Vanderhorst ... they should have celebrated that terminus in a much more sensitive way.”

While the building's height on most facades is masked by having its uppermost floors recessed, its Hutson Street elevation does not, at least not in its center. "It's just a massive wall," Hastie said.

Hutson Street

While the Hotel Bennett facade facing Marion Square has won accolades, some feel its rear side creates a big wall along Hutson Street. Robert Behre/Staff

Preservation Society Executive Director Kristopher King said Hotel Bennett is a nice building, "but would it be better if it were a floor or two shorter? Absolutely."

King said a tall building never was going to ruin either Marion Square or the city — the Francis Marion Hotel across King Street is several floors taller than Hotel Bennett but seldom is criticized — but the society still raises alarms about anything it sees as weakening the city's height limits.

A defining feature that separates Charleston from its early American urban rivals, including Boston, New York and Philadelphia, is that Charleston's skyline has kept its historic sense of scale. 

"We fought what we felt was a good fight," King said. "We did not get a good outcome. We accepted it, and I went to the groundbreaking in support of Mike and the hotel."

In a sense, the unsuccessful fight over Hotel Bennett foreshadowed preservationists' more recent battle, also unsuccessful, over the replacement for the Sergeant Jasper apartments. Again, the primary issue was not architectural quality but height.

It's important to note the city's architectural and preservation community was never in unanimity about height, at least not around Marion Square.

Bennett said he drew inspiration from the Committee to Save the City's Vision for Marion Square, a 2003 grass-roots plan that called for sizable classical buildings framing the square's open space, like a scaled-down version of New York's Central Park.

From the committee's standpoint, height was less of an issue for Charleston's future than what its members saw as a steady departure from the city's tradition of classically inspired architecture. 

Bennett, who had bought the much-maligned old Charleston County Library, loved and embraced the vision, even hiring Fairfax & Sammons Architects of New York to design the hotel's facade. Fairfax & Sammons helped lead the five architectural firms that assembled the visions' artist renderings and site plans.

Vision for Marion Square

The 2003 Vision for Marion Square suggested this design at the northwest corner. While the ultimate Hotel Bennett looks different, the main architect behind the vision, Fairfax & Sammon, designed the hotel's facade. Vision for Marion Square/Provided

"Some things that came up during our meetings were words like 'romance' and 'beauty,'" architect Anne Fairfax said during the vision's unveiling. "We sort of dared to go there."

So did Bennett, and the city agreed.

He half-jokingly summarized the process like this: "I would always meet with the city, and I would tell them what I wanted to do. They would tell me what they wanted me to do, and I would do what they wanted me to do."

In fact, the preservationists' fight was never with Bennett as much as with the city. Their lawsuit alleged the city erred in granting a zoning variance to allow the height limit to be redistributed over the property. Then the legal fight evolved to criticize the city's passage of a new height limit there as a case of spot zoning. In 2011, the state's highest court ruled 3-2 in favor of the city.

Justice Kaye Hearn saw things the preservationists' way. "The majority gives short shrift to the history of historic preservation in the city of Charleston and the upper King Street neighborhood, thereby ignoring the city's steady march away from excessively permissive height designations and towards zoning classifications that are in accord with its uniquely historic fabric," she wrote in her dissenting opinion.

For Bennett, the protracted fight had an upside, not simply because it mostly unfolded during the Great Recession.

"The one benefit of the delay is we were able to build a much more expensive and grander building than I could have 20 years ago," he said.

While Bennett has built and renovated dozens of prominent buildings during his four-decade career, this is the one he wants to be remembered for. It's a heady accomplishment for someone whose father shined shoes across the street and who first worked here renting mopeds.

Any ill-will he harbored toward the preservation groups has faded. "I might have been mad for a short period of time," he said, "but that all left. They were doing what they thought was right. And they have done great things and continue to do great things for the city."

The preservationists' battle against the height left them with little leverage with Bennett to encourage archaeological work on the site.

Bennett Hotel construction

The foundation work for Hotel Bennett involved digging deep into the soil north of Marion Square, but the city required no archaeology work there, despite the sites' Revolutionary War history. File/Wade Spees/Staff 

The hotel property sits just north of the square that was the focal point of the Siege of Charleston, the pivotal 1780 battle in which the British captured Charleston. While the hotel dug deep into the soil to create underground parking, little if any archaeology work was done. The city does not regulate archaeology in its permitting.

Few would take issue with Bennett's investment and the quality of the materials, from the $1.6 million of bronze windows custom-made in Upstate New York to the ample marble, copper and pecky cypress.

Even the old library's pink marble panels have been removed, reshaped and featured in the oval ladies' bar off the lobby, a design that Bennett said took root when he was musing on a Faberge egg.

As for the outside, it remains to be seen how quickly and warmly Charlestonians and others will embrace it. It's no secret that the Old Citadel, now an Embassy Suites hotel, would be the last place one would expect to hear complaints that its new neighbor is overshadowing it or eroding the charm of the square.

Bennett owns that, too. 

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