June 28, 2017

A "Cold" Office Building Becomes an Inviting Hotel in Charleston

  • By: Katherine Flynn
Developer John Dewberry purchased this former General Services Administration building in 2008.

photo by: The Dewberry

Developer John Dewberry purchased this former General Services Administration building in 2008.

When John Dewberry was a quarterback for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, fans would sometimes boo from the stands during the first quarter of a game if they weren’t happy with their team’s performance.

During his senior year, Dewberry led the Yellow Jackets to nine victories, managing to change the tide of public opinion on a formerly struggling team. “By the end of the year, they [the fans] had forgotten they were booing, and they were telling you they were there [supporting you] all along,” Dewberry says, laughing now as he remembers.

It’s a lot like what he experienced while attempting to transform the former L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building in downtown Charleston into a luxury hotel. He estimates that about “90 percent” of people that he spoke with after purchasing the building in 2008 from the General Services Administration were in favor of tearing it down.

“Today, you get a bunch of people saying, ‘Oh yeah, I always knew that building was going to be great,’ and I just kind of have to chuckle,” he says of his hotel, The Dewberry, which opened in August of 2016. “What happened to the 90 percent that wanted to tear it down?”

Dewberry fell in love with the city of Charleston during college, while visiting a friend who was attending The Citadel. After his undergraduate football career came to an end, Dewberry founded the Atlanta-based Dewberry Capital Corporation. He developed a real estate portfolio all across the South and became interested in opening a hotel in Charleston, considering a few different properties before placing a $15 million bid on the seven-story GSA structure. It had been vacant since 1999, when it was damaged by Hurricane Floyd.

The L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building was commissioned in the early 1960s by John F. Kennedy, and by 1964, construction was complete. It’s one of the city’s few examples of late-20th-century modern design, and Dewberry was encouraged to save it by members of Historic Charleston. Doing so, however, posed a variety of unique challenges. For one thing, it needed a significant amount of asbestos removal. For another, he was going to have to determine the best way to convert a cold, boxy office building into a warm and inviting place for travelers to stay the night.

One of Dewberry’s favorite aspects of the building are the grey-veined white marble surrounds that encapsulate each 9-foot window. They pop out on the building’s exterior, and connect on the inside to form each windowsill.

“The marble surrounds give the building depth and architecture that I felt we could work with,” he says. “On the outside, it doesn’t look like there would be any light in there. But when you get on the inside, the building is nothing but light, which is a pleasant surprise.”

Dewberry ultimately decided to cover the exterior red, Flemish-bond brick with a soft, light-gray lime wash, believing that it would make the structure look more hospitable. He says that once he put a mock-up of his plan, including the gray brick, at street-level, where people driving by could easily see it, it was a game-changer in terms of getting the nod of approval from the historic preservation commission and other government entities.

“They said, ‘Wow, that’s great. They didn’t get, we get it now, let’s give John approval and go forward.'”

The construction process, which was originally estimated to take 14 months, ended up lasting for almost two years from start to finish. The Dewberry was fully open to the public by November of 2016, complete with a cozy, brass-accented lobby and bar called The Living Room and a recreation of a classic Charleston brick-walled garden. Dewberry and his construction team also took pains to preserve the original 1964 plaque commemorating the building's dedication as a federal government structure by then-president Lyndon B. Johnson.

Dewberry says that, after the hotel opened, one particular conversation with a former member of the hospitality industry stuck with him.

“He said, ‘A lot of people will come in here and tell you what a great job you’ve done, because you have,’” Dewberry relays. “And I said, ‘Well, thank you so much.’ But he goes, ‘What I understand that a lot of people won’t is how you took a cold, hard structure and made it feel warm. They’ll like it, but they’ll never know what you went through. But I do.'"

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

@kateallthetime

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