Charleston — city government, area architects, planners, preservationists and residents — is engaged in a conversation about new commercial architecture in a city known for its old architecture.
One point of contention is determining what makes a building’s architecture good — or not so good.
Perhaps SCE&G’s building at 141 Meeting Street can give some clues. It was built in 1876-78 for the Charleston Gas Light Company. That company’s successor, SCE&G, announced this week that it will close its offices there by the end of June. It has “no specific plans at this time” for the property. The leaves lots of room for interested people to muse about what might be done with the property and its offices.
And E.B. White’s classic design with Palladian elements, columns and a modillioned pediment — and off-street parking — lends it to many uses. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley doesn’t have anything specific in mind for the building, but said that SCE&G’s move provides an opportunity “to put on our thinking caps.”
For example, it’s next door to the Beaux Arts style Gibbes Museum of Art, separated by the lovely Gateway Walk, an unhurried three-block stroll through churchyards and gardens. It backs up to the Beaux Arts style Charleston Library Society. It’s across the street from the Romanesque style Circular Congregational Church, whose excellent acoustics have made it a frequent site for music concerts.
Given the context of the neighborhood and its own architectural importance, it’s reasonable to hope for a new civic use for 141 Meeting Street. Indeed, over the years, some have suggested it should be part of the Gibbes.
What’s notable is that this office building, which was handsome in 1878, is handsome today. That’s due in part to SCE&G’s stewardship of the building, and in part to the prowess of the architect, who also designed landmark churches including Grace Episcopal, the Huguenot, St. Matthew’s Lutheran, St. Johannes Lutheran and Centenary Methodist. He designed the steeple of St. Philip’s and Market Hall.
It might take a while to agree on what makes a new commercial building attractive today, but it’s clear that E.B. White’s design stands the test of time.