When Bowen's Island Restaurant burned to the ground in 2006, many feared the death of a treasured oyster shack, a living example of local salt marsh culture. New condos crept to Bowen's doorstep along Folly Road, and the neighboring rickety Anchor Line restaurant was soon to close. In a quickly developing corner of Charleston, could a relic like Bowen's pick up the pieces and carry on?
Owner Robert Barber made certain of it. His earliest memories are of afternoons spent playing cards with his grandmother in the rustic dining room at Bowen's.
"When a customer would come in, she'd have to knock off and get to work," says Barber, who stopped practicing law to become the restaurant's proprietor nearly two decades ago. As a child, his grandparents simply cooked their oysters on a fire in the yard, then shoveled them onto a sawhorse-and-plywood table. By high school, the dining room had moved inside, complete with a dirt floor.
"I have fond memories," says Barber. "One year my grandmother was kind of tight with her money and didn't want to pay the oyster pickers what they wanted to get, so guess who ends up picking the oysters that year but me? I'm the only lawyer around that's picked oysters a whole season."
It's that history, along with a half-century's worth of graffiti and memories etched into Bowen's walls, that made rebuilding an imperative.
When architect Carl Janes first walked through the charred remains of Bowen's dining room, images of Machu Picchu and the ruins of Incan temples arose in his mind. He'd already taken to spending afternoons poking around in the corners and woods of the hammock island, imagining himself a grown-up Huck Finn, and he realized the importance of retaining Bowen's character while rebuilding within modern codes and regulations.
Barber, who'd been working with his brother's company New Traditions Custom Homes to design the original plan for the new restaurant, recognized Janes' vision, and a fantastic communion of modernity and history arose. The new Bowen's Island, on pace for a summer 2009 debut, is only the third restaurant in the nation to attempt a platinum rating with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program. That means everything from solar water heating to rainwater collection and biodiesel generation to an already-in-place green roof.
"My initial inclination was to figure out a way that we could, within the present regulatory structure, build exactly what we had before," says Barber. With its screened-in porches (no A/C), crushed oyster shell parking lot (no impervious surface), and close connection to the earth (the oysters slurped in the dining room were literally brought on shore a few dozen feet away), Bowen's already had a head start on eco-friendliness. "People are interested in activities that are conforming with the environment, as opposed to the environment conforming with whatever we want," adds Barber.
The new Bowen's will be much like what's already there. Whatever portions of the original walls and equipment can be salvaged will be incorporated into the new structure, and the rest will be crushed and recycled or utilized in sculpture. The oyster room may incorporate a small museum or exhibit about the island's history. The biggest change is a second level to the dining room, modeled after the still-existing banquet room that's housed diners since the fire.
"It wouldn't work not to emphasize what's here and translate it up there," says Janes. "If you had it all sealed up and insulated, it wouldn't feel right."
An open air restaurant poses a challenge to builders and LEED-examiners alike, as a core aspect of that program is heating and cooling efficiency. It's required Barber to more vigorously pursue other avenues, like solar water heating, to score LEED points. And if they get an official gold certification rather than platinum, or even none at all, it won't change much about why we eat at Bowen's, or why Barber continues to operate it.
"People have a memorable time when they're here," he says. "I think that some people may go through times in their lives that are not much fun and maybe even miserable, but I think for at least some period of that life while they were here, they had a very nice time, and it brings back good memories to them of a beautiful Lowcountry setting, eating good food, and enjoying themselves in good company. That's part of why I keep it going."
Fire may destroy the visible reminder of those occasions, but it can't erase them from the patrons' minds. Fortunately, for Bowen's regulars and new generations alike, there are years of shuckin' to come.