Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Fireproof Building--An Important Puzzle Piece In The Story Called Charleston

Standing triumphantly on the corner of Meeting and Chalmer Streets, shadowed by the magnificent old oaks of Washington Square, its solid masonry walls, flagstone floors, and window sashes and shutters of iron have survived a war, withstood hurricane force winds, and endured an earthquake, but ironically, it was conceived and constructed to stand up to a fire, and it did. After the all-consuming flames of The Great Fire of 1861 burned nearby Circular Church, Institute Hall, and every building on the east side of Meeting Street between Market and Queen Streets, then jumping over Broad Street and cutting a swath of destruction all the way to the river, it successfully past through the conflagration. This Matron of Meeting Street was rightfully named The Fireproof Building.

The Fireproof Building was built by the state between 1822 and 1827. It was constructed by John G. Spindle and designed by Charleston native Robert Mills, the first native-born American to be trained as an architect. Aside from his work in Charleston, Mills was responsible for the Washington Monument and many public buildings throughout the State and nation. Designed to house and protect the state's public records, its structure contained no flammable materials. It is now believed to be the first and oldest building of fireproof construction in the United States.

Mills signature design is seen throughout its simple Greek Doric style. With minimal ornamentation, the exterior conveys a sense of order and serenity. The walls are of brick, stuccoed in imitation of the same. Its two porticoes, with four high columns each on an arcaded basement and triple windows, are typical Mills. The columns are three-and-a-half feet in diameter and crowned with a pediment. While taking photographs of its exterior, I noticed its opposite facing sides were identical to one another.

Renovations of the stair hall.
Although I was not able to enter the building, presently closed to the public, descriptions of its interior make it an architectural photographers dream featuring a three-story oval stair hall with a cantilevered brownstone staircase and cross-vaulted rooms on the main floor. The stair hall is lit by a cupola.

It was originally called the Charleston District Record Building. In recent years, the South Carolina Historical Society has gained title to the iconic building. It is now the headquarters of the SCHS. It was listed in the National Register July 29, 1969; Designated a National Historic Landmark November 7, 1973.

Despite being fireproof, it is not age-proof, as seen by the crumbling stucco along its lower exterior. The SCHS has been making improvements to the building--an obvious deduction confirmed by its blocked stair entrances and piles of old bricks stacked on its porticoes.

Besides being adjacent to famous Washington Square, the Fireproof Building is surrounded by Charleston landmarks. City Hall, St. Michael's Church, Hibernian Hall, Circular Congretional Church and The Mills House Wyndam Grand are all within view. Famous restaurants close by are Husk, Poogan's Porch, Eli's Table, and Fast and French.

The day I was there taking pictures, I saw four different walking tours. I have no doubt The Fireproof Building was part of the guides narrations. Built in a century when destructive city fires raged all around it, bursting Union mortar shells rained down from surrounding batteries, and a great earthquake shook the foundations of the city, it has prevailed. It has become an important puzzle piece in the story called Charleston.

1 comment:

Jim Lundy said...

Only the exterior of the building is "fireproof," i.e. made of materials that will not catch fire during another inferno spreading from building to building. The interior includes wood floors,fireplaces for heat, wood furniture and of course paper documents by the ton -- all of which are certainly not fireproof. Part of the strategy in keeping the building from burning was to isolate it at the corner surrounded by the park. They also bought the houses across the street and demolished them to further isolate it (fire was shown to have jumped over streets as you noted in your text).