A rendering for the proposed staircase and elevator structure at the Old City Jail
With plans to prepare Charleston's Old City Jail for use as a new office space, the team behind the project views the renovation effort as the best bet for preserving the local landmark for generations to come.
Built in 1802, the jail's rear courtyard once served as a holding space for slaves awaiting sale. In 1822, Denmark Vesey was imprisoned in the Old City Jail as he awaited his execution for a foiled slave revolt. Leading up to the Civil War, the property received several renovations and additions before being utilized to house Union prisoners, including members of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — one of the first African-American combat units in the United States. With much of the Old City Jail damaged during the Earthquake of 1886 and subsequently rebuilt, the jail was decommissioned in 1939 and the property was handed over to the Charleston Housing Authority. With the jail's most recent tenant, the American College of the Building Arts, relocating, Jason Ward and Landmark Enterprises have gained control of the property.
On Wednesday, representatives from Landmark Enterprises and Liollio Architecture will go before the city's Board of Architectural Review to request conceptual approval to renovate portions of the Old City Jail and construct a new rear stairwell and elevator. Repairs include securing the failing stucco along the building's exterior, as well as cleaning and improvements to the exposed brick on the outside walls, according to plans submitted to the BAR.
In addition to structural renovations to the Old City Jail, Landmark Enterprises is also applying for permission to construct an additional stairwell and elevator at the rear of the building
According to Ward, president of Mt. Pleasant-based Landmark Enterprises, the ultimate goal is to make the building available for use as an office space, while still allowing visitors the option of touring the former jail site.
"If we don't find another use for this building, it will never be fixed. It will crumble around us," says Ward, who cites the total cost of the project to be around $7-8 million, which will be aided with the use of historic preservation tax credits.
Perhaps the biggest change to the Old City Jail will be the three-story stairwell and elevator proposed for construction at the rear of the structure's octagonal wing built around 1859. Proposed for demolition is the current stairwell structure built in 2013. The request also asks for permission to partially demolish an exterior shed and a portion of the gate entrance along Franklin Street to accommodate emergency vehicles.
As with any new upgrades to a historic structure, the plans from Landmark Enterprises to convert the Old City Jail into an office space have raised concerns from those worried that this important piece of history could be lost. Last week, representatives from the local nonprofit, the Old City Jail Foundation, released a statement regarding the proposed plans and outlined the group's own goals, which include acquiring the property so that it can be maintained as a national landmark.
For Ward, leveraging private funds through the use of the office space is the surest path to paying for the structural repairs needed to preserve the 19,000-square-foot space.
"We really want to preserve the jail," says Ward. "It will be accessible to the public. It's very important to us that this stays a part of the community."