Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Charleston Architectural Relic Of Great Importance Rises Above Its Surrounding Landscape

While driving along Washington Street between Laurens and Pritchard, your attention is promptly drawn to an eye-catching brick formation hauntingly rising above the concrete landscape of the Union Pier Terminal. I have from time to time on outings along this section of the Charleston waterfront seen the curious structure. In those previous encounters, I have with a passing interest pondered about its existence and fostered a temptation to photograph it, but since it was not my primary focus at that moment, its reality would drift from my speculations and consciousness. This day, it would be more than just a fleeting fancy.

I was in Charleston for the afternoon visiting the Coast Guard tallship, Eagle. The 295-foot training vessel was in port for the weekend and moored at the Union Pier Terminal. I came in on Calhoun Street and parked my truck along the heavily bush-covered security fence of the Union Pier Terminal on Laurens Street and walked through the Concord Street gate to the pier and awaiting ship. After touring and photographing the magnificent ship and on my way to leave the pier, an unanticipated opportunity with a bizarre twist presented itself.

For on the horizon and within walking distance, there stood the infamous brick oddity of prior fleeting contemplation. I excitedly navigated the numerous cement barriers that blocked my approach. From the backside, it was a three story, singular wall heavily supported by a maze of steel girders. On its frontside, its true character was revealed. I raised my camera to take my first picture, when suddenly I heard someone shout, "Sir. Sir. You cannot take a picture." I turned around and walking towards me was a husky gentleman dressed in a guards uniform. I responded in disbelief, "What? Are you serious?" He repeated, "Sir, you cannot take a picture," and added, "You are not even supposed to be in here. This is a secure area." Again, I expressed my disappointment in that revelation and asked, "Is this some kind of protected city icon?" He informed me of the possibility of being arrested. I explained to him where I came from and it seemed to appease him. He proceeded to direct me to a sign that was posted at the front guard gate warning no photographs were permitted of the facility.

I returned to the Concord Street gate and exited. Not to be deterred from getting a picture, I did warily sneak a photograph of the brick structure while standing on Washington Street, all-the-while worrying whether I would be swarmed by a bunch of policeman mistaking me for a possible infiltrator scoping out a secure facility.

The brick oddity is actually the remnants of a building facade belonging to the one-time Bennett Rice Mill. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of 19th century American industrial architecture. In its 171 years, it has changed ownership several times and survived an equal amount of natural catastrophes, but the most dire threat hanging over its continued existence is the wrecking ball.

The Bennett Rice Mill was built in 1844 by Governor Thomas Bennett, who was one of the wealthiest of the Lowcountry plantation owners and a gentleman architect. The Classic Revival building, with Palladian windows and brick columns with stone caps and lintels, was impressive. It had 11 foot ceilings, hand-dressed wood timbers, cased wooden columns and arches and cast iron interior columns. Interior wrought iron railings were used around the different platforms. The smallest of six Charleston mills, it was located in an industrial area that was served by rail, ships and a mill pond. The schooners brought in the rice, which was then loaded onto tramways and brought over to the steam-powered mill.

Around 1940
The Civil War changed the Southern economy and rice production declined, but the mill continued to operate into the early 1900's. In 1924, it was converted into a peanut plant under the ownership of the Planters Peanut and Chocolate Company and later used as a storage facility by its next owners, Seaboard Air Line Railroad Company. A tornado blew off its roof in 1938, so the new owners decided to demolish it, but concerned citizens of Charleston protested. In 1952, the city of Charleston declared it unsafe and the wrecking ball reared its ugly head. Some heavy hitters became involved in the protests, such as the American Institute of Architects in New York. The mill, rated as one of twenty-six nationally important buildings in Charleston, survived, but not unscathed. One of its wing buildings was demolished. In 1958, the State Ports Authority took ownership with plans of restoring the structure, but that same year the City ordered its destruction again. Preservationists stepped in and won their argument with the City to have it designated an architectural relic of great importance. Then, in 1960, Hurricane Donna struck a near fatal blow. The storm spawned a tornado and the building crumpled in the intense winds leaving only the brick facade we see today. The steel girders were added for reinforcement and in 1987, it weathered the fury of Hurricane Hugo.

The Bennett Rice Mill facade's future still remains uncertain. The SPA is committed to its restoration, but legal challenges have prevented the port from completing its phase one plans. After all this architectural relic of great importance has endured, it would be a crying shame if while the powers that be argue over legalities a hurricane or an earthquake should take down this surviving time portal to Charleston's glorious past.

Next time you are driving down Washington Street near the Union Pier Terminal, look towards the waterfront. The Bennett Rice Mill facade rises above the surrounding landscape like a solitary island in the open ocean. In a way, it reminds me of the famous Arch of Triumph in Paris, France. If you dare, stop and take a picture because now you see it.

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