claass HAUS travels to The Dewberry in Charleston, South Carolina.
Modern architecture is definitely not the first thing that comes to mind when daydreaming about the Spanish moss-draped cobblestone streets of Charleston, South Carolina. The embodiment of Southern charm (and my home for more than a decade), Charleston is one of America’s greatest architectural treasures, a well-preserved, white columned colonial-era capital. One of the city's few extant modern buildings, the L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building (now The Dewberry) has survived hurricane damage, asbestos issues, and local apathy towards modernism to become one of historic Charleston's most recent (and well-publicized) preservation success stories.
Completed in 1964, the seven-story L. Mendel Rivers tower was the first federal office building constructed in South Carolina after World War II. A product of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” (an ambitious agenda of social reforms), the building’s design by Columbia (South Carolina)-firm Lyles, Bassett, Carlisle, and Wolff followed the 1962 Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, which established architecture's symbolic and functional role within society. Blending modern forms with a reverence for local architectural elements (like the ground floor arcade and the window masking), the brick and marble building dominates its immediate landscape, towering over the stately historic buildings of the rest of the peninsula. Named after a Democratic congressman that served for nearly thirty years, the Federal Building is functional and modern, a predictable replication of government office buildings constructed across the country during the middle of the twentieth century.
After suffering extensive damage (including flooding and the disruption of asbestos) during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the Federal Building vacated, sitting empty for the next fifteen years. In 2008, Atlanta-based Dewberry Capital purchased the building at auction (for a bid of $15 million), and several years later, rehabilitation finally began on the 1960s office tower. The Dewberry, a luxury hotel, opened in November 2016, and while much of the exterior has been preserved (with the exception of the painted Flemish-bond brick and the reformulation of the ground floor), the interior has been reconfigured to fit the needs of a fashionable hotel.
Evoking the modern lowcountry lifestyle, the new Dewberry seems perfectly suited to the city’s carefully-constructed New South identity, a genteel and timeless haunt in one of America's best-preserved cities. Although other modern buildings in Charleston have recently suffered the cruel fate of the wrecking ball (the Charleston County Public Library and the Gaillard Auditorium), the Federal Building miraculously survived to become the bright new star of the city's hospitality scene (maybe we should just chalk that up to the power of preservation). Last weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days at The Dewberry, and overall, I left feeling pretty impressed with the efforts to convert the old Federal offices (all that marble!), and one can only hope that the success of Charleston's mod hotel will lead to new life for the city’s remaining midcentury treasures.
See the interior of the building here.
All photographs by author (2017).
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.