Rescue the Bennett Rice Mill

The facade of the old Bennett's Rice Mill on State Ports Authority property on Washington Street. (Leroy Burnell/Staff)

Four and a half years ago, preservationists breathed a sigh of relief. The State Ports Authority committed to stabilize and preserve the historic Bennett Rice Mill facade.

But the celebration was premature. Other than a few structural improvements in 2011, the facade has remained untouched.

It appears the 50-plus years of work to save what is known nationally as an extraordinary example of industrial architecture isn’t over yet.

That’s because the SPA has linked the project to the redevelopment of Union Pier as a cruise ship terminal. That project, however, is stalled by a lawsuit. The SPA should uncouple the Bennett Rice Mill restoration from the disputed terminal project. Failure to proceed on the rice mill threatens an architectural landmark that has survived only by a near-miraculous set of circumstances.

The mill structure has been plagued by threat after threat — intense weather, neglect, money troubles and city actions.

Its history began in 1844 when Gov. Thomas Bennett built a handsome and imposing brick building with Palladian windows and brick columns with stone caps and lintels.

Its usefulness as a rice mill passed and it fell into disrepair. Then in 1938, a tornado blew off its roof, so the owner at that time, Seaboard Air Line Railway, decided to demolish it.

The Preservation Society of Charleston protested. It languished for 14 years until, in 1952, the City of Charleston declared it unsafe and ordered it to be razed. That provoked widespread protest, which included the American Institute of Architects in New York.

So Seaboard leased the Bennett Rice Mill to the Society for a nominal fee while the preservation group tried unsuccessfully to raise $100,000 for restoration costs. Next step was the wrecking ball.

But the building got another reprieve. The State Ports Authority took ownership, planning to restore and use the structure. Sadly, it couldn’t afford the job, and in 1958 the city again ordered it demolished.

That’s when preservationists shifted their focus from reuse to preserving the Bennett Rice Mill as an architectural relic of great importance. The Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society raced against the city deadline and won. It could remain standing.

Then? More bad weather. A tornado so damaged the building in 1960 that all that could be saved was its western facade, which stands, though tenuously, today. All that explains why people were so pleased when the SPA in 2010 said it would restore the facade — and are so disappointed that plans are on hold.

Erin Dhand, SPA spokesperson, said that the complete restoration is included in phase two of the Union Pier redevelopment plan. Legal challenges have prevented the port from completing phase one.

It isn’t clear why restoring the Bennett Rice Mill has to wait. Even if those plans change, the SPA has committed to preserving the facade.

Several years ago, structural engineer Craig Bennett Jr. assessed the structure and said it was amazing that it had survived Hurricane Hugo.

That suggests that the Bennett Rice Mill, older now and in worse shape, is even more vulnerable to collapse. It could be caused by neglect, or by a storm or earthquake or accident.

It would be a travesty if a structure of such architectural significance is lost while the SPA fights legal battles unrelated to the rice mill.

While the SPA isn’t happy about local challenges to its cruise business, the port of Charleston generally receives enthusiastic support from the community and its elected representatives. The SPA should reciprocate by proceeding with this restoration.