FEATURE ‌ Building Momentum 

New Clemson center approved, decried

click to enlarge An interior cross section of the proposed Clemson Architecture center
  • An interior cross section of the proposed Clemson Architecture center

At first, it was hard to believe that Monday night's meeting of the Board of Architectural Review was an evening Clemson University President Jim Barker had been looking forward to for the past 20 years.

For nearly three hours, peninsular residents railed against a very contemporary and modern design for the proposed Clemson Architectural Center in Charleston (CACC), presented by two Boston-based architects to a crowd of homeowners who spilled out into the lobby of the third-floor meeting room at 75 Calhoun.

Maybe "bombed" is a better word, as more than one local decried the proposed building as a "tragedy." Most argued that its intended uses, and design, were too intense for the historic neighborhood.

And then the BAR voted 6-to-1 in favor of the conceptual plan, approving the "mass, scale, and height" of the 21,000-square-foot building, which will be built across the street from the Spoleto Festival USA headquarters on George Street in the historic Ansonborough neighborhood.

The massive building where 50 architectural students and 15 teachers and administrators will meet for class was rendered in drawings and models, showing a host of modern influences, including a street-facing wall of small windows softened by a perforated metal screen embossed with scenes of Lowcountry trees; an open, two-story courtyard in the center of the building; and rainwater recycling gizmos that will siphon what falls from the sky for "grey" water uses.

Ironically, the main point of disagreement between the two sides, the zoning that's allowing CACC to be built on that site, wasn't even supposed to be discussed that evening. But then practically everyone who spoke, including Barker and Mayor Joe Riley, either attacked or defended it.

The City of Charleston changed the zoning in 2001 on one of the two lots that will make up the CACC, allowing the project to move forward without possibly contentious public review in front of zoning boards.

This point still stuck in Jack Murray's priest collared-craw. The retired Episcopal minister spoke against the four-story building to be erected next to his bed and breakfast, Fantasia.

Claiming he and his wife were purposefully kept out of the design loop by City Hall and university officials, despite several promises to be included, the reverend said he would "never trust a word that comes out of Clemson again," with the university's president not 10 feet away.

Several of those who spoke against the conceptual plan, including City Councilman Henry Fishburne (who originally voted for the plan) and representatives from historic and preservation societies, asked the BAR to defer their decision so more public input could be welcomed.

Defenders of the design agreed that Kennedy & Violich Architects had done at times a "masterful" job of creating a plan that stood out but still deferred to the Spoleto manse, spoke to the time in which the building was built, and that it included appropriate and fine building materials. City architect Eddie Bello argued that the design process had been open to the public for years.

When it came time for the BAR to vote, only boardmember and local real estate attorney Robert DeMarco spoke against it, saying that the city was "batting 1.000" when it comes to modern designs -- all failures.

The rest of the BAR, particularly local architect Sandy Logan, approved of practically everything about the design, at times lavishing praise on it's ability to provide transition between the commercial building sizes along Meeting Street and the private homes on George.

But it wasn't a clean victory for the crew from Boston. Comments made by supporters on the BAR called for a cleaner design ("what you've got there is a fussy building"), a simpler palette of materials, and more attention to be paid to the building's front and west side.

Additionally, the decision to locate the building on the back property line of the lot will likely be revisited, as it would require the "bricking in" of windows of an adjacent condo building, something those both for and against said isn't neighborly and isn't done in Charleston.

Regardless, Ansonborough will soon have a new, $8 million neighbor. What remains to be seen is if it will be a good neighbor or not.


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