A Second Sunday guide to King Street architecture 

Beaux Arts

The Library Society at 164 King is one of the best examples of Beaux Arts architecture

Jonathan Boncek

The Library Society at 164 King is one of the best examples of Beaux Arts architecture

What do the Charleston Library Society, Starbucks, C. Wonder, and Urban Outfitters have in common?

They are all housed in historic King Street structures built between 1890 and 1930 with classical influences that can best be described as Beaux Arts architecture.

King Street is home to a wide variety of commercial and institutional architecture. If you are like most people traveling down King, whether inside of your car or hustling down the sidewalk (even when sober), you rarely take the time to look up from your phones at the buildings and appreciate their beauty. Second Sunday is the perfect time to walk down King Street at a leisurely pace without getting run over by a car, bus, delivery truck, skateboard, RV, carriage, or bike.

What are the characteristics of Beaux Arts architecture? Virginia and Lee McAlester's A Field Guide to American Houses is a good resource. They identify wall surfaces decorated with garlands, flowers, or shields; façade with quoins, pilasters, or columns; walls of masonry; and a symmetrical façade as key features. Roof cornices topped with a balustrade are typical, as are arched windows with ornamented keystones at the top. The term "Beaux Arts" derives from the École des Beaux-Arts in France, where many American architects studied in the late 19th century and brought home ideas based on classical precedents inspired by their experience in France.

Our property files at the Preservation Society are filled with notes, essays, research reports, and newspaper articles, many by Robert Stockton, and from these files in our History Attic we can learn a bit about some of the Beaux Arts and classically inspired buildings along King Street. A good place to start is at the corner of King and Queen streets and head north toward Calhoun, but only after you have spent hundreds of dollars at the Preservation Society's Book and Gift Shop, of course.

1. Charleston Library Society (164 King St.). This is probably the best example of Beaux Arts architecture on King Street — the building features a rusticated foundation, pairs of Ionic pilasters, paneled parquet, cornice details, and decorated keystones — and it's a good place to start. Built about 1914, it was designed by Philadelphia architects Samuel Hawley and Robert McGoodwin and stands tall on a rusticated foundation. McGoodwin married Kate Bryan, of Charleston, and from that connection the firm was commissioned to design the Charleston Library Society's building. Founded in 1748, the Society moved to King Street from the building at 50 Broad St. We look forward to the centennial of the Society's home in the near future.

click to enlarge No more deposits taken at 239 King St. - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • No more deposits taken at 239 King St.

2. Starbucks (239 King St.). People used to keep their money in the Carolina Savings Bank building, constructed between 1926 and 1927. Now they invest small fortunes in lattes, frappuccinos, and lots of whipped cream in the popular coffee shop. The blank heraldic shields on the façade add a regal touch to King Street.

3. M.P. Demetre Jewelers (253 King St.). Renovated in 1918 for use as Citizens Bank, this structure has always been a storehouse of treasure. The building is balanced, though not symmetrical, with a three-story door surround which includes two-story columns topped by a heavy pediment. To the right, a more traditional commercial front houses a separate tenant, entered through a door with console brackets.

click to enlarge 285 King received a Beaux Arts makeover around 1900 - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • 285 King received a Beaux Arts makeover around 1900

4. C. Wonder (285 King St.). This new store just took its place on America's most historic shopping street and immediately contributed to the community by helping raise money to conserve Eliza Lucas Pinckney's 18th-century dress, owned by the Charleston Museum. The shop is housed in a three-story building that was renovated circa 1900 with decorative floral touches and a rooftop balustrade, which used to be topped with urns.

5. Bits of Lace (302 King St.). This building was constructed 1915-16 to plans made by architect John D. Newcomer (1867-1931). The building is limestone over brick, with a balustrade at the top and decorated keystone over the large window. It was built as the Title Guarantee Building, and while you won't be able to take a loan out here, you might be able to take out some bits of lace.

6. King Street Grille (304 King St.). Unfortunately this façade has lost most of its original Beaux Arts details. The large arched opening, topped with a decorated keystone, has a modern storefront window; originally, it featured stained glass, as well as an embellished cornice at the top of the building with laurel wreath escutcheons. Built circa 1898, it was Riddock's Arcade, before becoming the Princess Theatre from about 1913 to 1927. It has since served commercial purposes.

7. University Books of Charleston (360 King St.). This three-story commercial structure has a modern storefront, but retains its historic character on the upper stories. It's a safe guess that it was built in 1874 and modified in 1905, as those dates are at the top of the building. Console brackets, pilasters, laurel wreaths, and a cornice with dentils are all characteristic of Beaux Arts architecture. This building is protected by a conservation easement held by the Preservation Society.

A different kind of talkie can be seen at 371 King these days - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • A different kind of talkie can be seen at 371 King these days

8. Urban Outfitters (371 King St.). Perhaps the most exuberant Beaux Arts commercial building on King Street, it was built between 1917-'18 by Albert Sottile as the Garden Theatre. First home to a vaudeville and "photoplay" theater, it was designed by architects C. K. Howell and David B. Hyer. The original plans by famous theater designer John Eberson were too expensive to build. While only a few features of the historic theater remain inside, the exterior is alive with every possible Beaux Arts decorative flourish.


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