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Steven Niketas' quest to renovate a 125-year-old St. Philip St. hardware store into a new restaurant

Well Preserved

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The roof was once caved in and the building had stood empty since before Hurricane Hugo, but when developer Steven Niketas saw 114 St. Philip St., he knew he wanted to open a restaurant in it. The owner of Mosaic Catering and Events in Mt. Pleasant and Virginia was feeling confident. He'd recently rehabbed a 1920s dairy in Richmond, recreating it as his catering and special events headquarters.

"After that Richmond building, I was so excited about the results. I think I got re-energized about this opportunity," he says. What he couldn't foresee was that during the renovation of 114 St. Philip — soon to become brunch-and-dinner spot The Westendorff — his architect would fall through the floor. The spot also required an entirely new foundation and the blessing of one man, esteemed pitmaster and philanthropist Jaime Westendorff.

You see, Westendorff's great-grandfather built the building with a business partner in 1905. He took over full ownership in 1915, renaming it C.W. Westendorff & Sons hardware store. And for some 70-plus years that's what it was, a local place to buy nails, hammers, and two-by-fours. By 1985 the family could no longer keep up with the building's maintenance and it's been basically abandoned ever since. Jamie Westendorff, owner of Charleston Outdoor Catering, bought the building from his father in the '80s but struggled to keep up with it often to the frustration of the Radcliffeborough Neighborhood Association and Historic Charleston Foundation. "Jamie had received many offers on the space, but had turned them all down," says Niketas. "He wanted to keep a connection to his family and heirs forever." The developer, however, figured out a way to make that happen: the two became partners. But reaching a business agreement was just the start of the arduous construction project.

Unlocking the door at 114 St. Philip, Nikitas and his architect Julia F. Martin uncovered a four-story building in disrepair. What had originally been retail on the first floor with the Westendorff family's apartment on the second and third, and an attic on top, was in pieces. So many pieces, in fact, that Martin immediately fell through the floor. "I felt terrible," says Niketas. "She was in a boot for weeks. I thought she'd quit."

The Westendorff sits at the corner of St. Philip and Warren Street - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Westendorff sits at the corner of St. Philip and Warren Street

But not even physical harm could dissuade Martin's passion for the project.

"I've loved that building since I moved here in 1999," says Martin. "But it was the hardest project I've had to deal with." To get started, the architect began researching historic documentation to piece together the original look. "The windows were still there. And the vertical sign that says Westendorff was falling apart, but we could see it enough to replicate." The tin work above each window was also salvageable as were the back piazzas, but the foundation was another story.

"The building is on another structure that dates back to the 1820s, we think," says Niketas. "It was built on old English brick." Brick that was beginning to crumble.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

As Nikitas' contractor began to dig down, they quickly realized the vintage foundation had compromised the walls. "There were places where you could put your whole fist through. Cracks had gotten bigger only to be patched and re-patched. You couldn't tell until we pulled it all apart," Niketas recalls. The construction team had to drill helical piers, or foundational supports into the ground, seal them with concrete, and build a structure inside the existing structure to stitch the cracks back together. It took six months of work before the contractors could do anything above ground. But the effort worked. The additional cost, however, came as a surprise. Fortunately, that's when Niketas learned about the state's 20 percent Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit.

"The credit was originally designed for neglected cotton factories and textile plants in the Upstate," says Niketas. To qualify, a building must "be on the National Register of Historic Places, or located within a National Register-listed historic district and certified by the National Park Service as contributing to the significance of the district." Additional stipulations include that the owner use the building to produce income for at least five years and that the rehab work be substantial — $5,000 minimum. Approval of the credit isn't finalized until a building project is complete, so Niketas won't know if he's actually earned the tax break until the restaurant opens. But the possibility has been an added incentive. And if the honors he received on April 28 are any indication, he's likely to get it. That day Niketas took home the Historic Charleston Foundation's Robert N.S. and Patti Foos Whitelaw Founders Award in recognition of work in rehabilitation and adaptive reuse.

The Westendorff's vertical sign has received a facelift - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Westendorff's vertical sign has received a facelift

So, what has all of this painstaking preservation delivered? A building that Niketas hopes will pay homage to what some have called one of the city's only remaining turn-of-the-century mercantile spaces.

The first floor will be The Westendorff restaurant, an 80-seat diner serving elevated comfort food with brunch every day and dinner in the evening from Chef Christopher "Ted" Jackson. On the second story there's a reservation-only banquet space — complete with retrofitted shutters, 1910s reproduction molding and a fire place — for special dinners and events. And, on the third floor, there's an apartment to be used as a small event space for things like office Christmas parties and the like. "We wanted to give it a feel of hosting an event in a high-end home," he says.

Many a preservationist has said that the best way to preserve a building is to use it. And while some will hem and haw over BAR restrictions and the need for architectural progress in this historic city, it's hard to debate a thoughtful rehabilitation of a long-abandoned building to its 1910s grandeur, especially when it comes with the promise of eating brunch while enjoying it. That's exactly what Niketas hopes locals will do come June when The Westendorff opens for business.

For now he'll settle for Jamie Westendorff's 95-year-old mother's reaction to the remodel. "She was in tears when she saw the renovation," he says. "She's thrilled to see it come back to life."

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