The State Ports Authority has committed to restoring the Bennett's Rice Mill, the elaborate brick facade on Union Pier. Initial work could begin soon to ensure it survives this hurricane season.

Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome met last week with preservation groups and assured them the agency will cover the cost of the facade's stabilization while seeking grants and other private donations, spokesman Byron Miller said.

The SPA's commitment comes as it works with preservation and neighborhood groups to address cruise ship impacts downtown and to plan for the redevelopment of Union Pier, 50 acres of prime real estate along Charleston's waterfront.

The current redevelopment plan calls for creating a one-acre "Rice Mill Park" around the facade, which would serve as the park's focal point.

"It's a tremendous piece of industrial architecture," Miller said, "and it speaks volumes of the past, present and future of the working waterfront."

Preservationists have pressed for action on the facade recently, as its mortar continued to crumble, causing bricks to slough off in some spots.

Evan Thompson, director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, said that hurricane season adds even more urgency.

"It is one of the most outstanding examples of industrial architecture in the United States, and that opinion is not ours alone but goes back to the 1940s and 50s when it was more complete," he said. "The fact that it's still standing today is a testament to how well it was built, and it still has such a strong character to it in a ruined state."

Craig Bennett, a structural engineer with 4SE Inc., plans to examine the surviving facade -- and its steel shoring and bracing -- as early as this week. He then will devise both short-term and longer-term plans to strengthen it.

The facade survived Hurricane Hugo 21 years ago, a fact that stunned and thrilled Bennett who noted, "It's like a billboard, and a lot of billboards didn't survive Hugo."

The recent preservation discussions began a few months ago, after The Post and Courier reported on its deteriorating state.

Former Gov. Thomas Bennett began work on the rice mill in 1844, and its highly detailed series of window and door openings testified to the wealth that the staple crop had brought to the Lowcountry.

The mill remained open until 1911, and a 1938 tornado ripped off its roof and caused other damage. Smaller sections of it were deliberately demolished in 1953.

Five years later, the State Ports Authority acquired it, and local preservationists began pressuring the agency to preserve it as a ruin. A 1960 tornado claimed two of its four remaining walls, and the third was later taken down, leaving only the elaborate front facade.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at