photo by: Andrew Cebulka

Preservation Magazine, Fall 2018

South Carolina Historical Society Opens Museum in Newly Restored Charleston Fireproof Building

When buildings caught fire in pre-Civil War Charleston, South Carolina, trade winds would often spread the flames, leading to devastating blazes. Washington Monument architect Robert Mills was determined to avoid this fate for the County Records Building he designed for the city, which opened in 1826. Also known as the Fireproof Building, the structure consists of brick, brownstone, and stucco.

Nearly 200 years later, the South Carolina Historical Society, which now owns the 9,000-square-foot building, decided to convert it to a state history museum. It moved its 2 million-piece archive from the Fireproof Building to the nearby College of Charleston, and then embarked on a $6.8 million rehabilitation, completed in June of 2018.

Working with Glenn Keyes Architects and Richard Marks Restorations, the society replaced some of the failing stucco on the Greek Revival-style building’s exterior. It sealed the roof and added a new HVAC system, taking care to maintain the original flagstone and heart pine floors and brick walls. While adding an elevator to improve the property’s accessibility, they uncovered 18th-century archaeological remains, hinting that an older structure may have occupied the site prior to the Fireproof Building.

The South Carolina Historical Society Museum opened in September and is expected to draw about 20,000 visitors per year. Exhibitions will highlight the lives of figures such as tribal chief Cassique of Kiawah, agricultural pioneer Eliza Lucas Pinckney, and Priscilla, a woman enslaved in a local household. “We wanted to tell [stories] about the diversity of people [in South Carolina] and how they created a wonderful blend of foodways, arts, and culture,” says Faye Jensen, the historical society’s executive director.

photo by: Andrew Cebulka

The exterior of the Fireproof Building alongside the lush neighboring Washington Square Park.

By: Lynn Freehill-Maye

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