Project DescriptionDesigned in 1917 by South Carolina’s first African American architect and built by his students, this former dormitory remains a prominent cultural icon on the SC State University's historically black, public university campus. When the decision was made to repurpose it as the main administration building, however, it had been profoundly neglected for a decade and much had been lost or irreparably damaged. Through archival research and conversations with older alumni, by cobbling together remaining building elements, and by simplifying the new architectural program, the architects were able to rehabilitate the building and restore the original architect’s straightforward, elegant vision, for posterity.
Prominently located at the campus entry, this former men’s dormitory is one of the first buildings designed by South Carolina’s first African American registered architect, who would also go on to become college president, serving for 17 years until 1949. In 1985 the dormitory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, within 10 years it was closed and virtually abandoned, during which time burst steam pipes and roof leaks caused severe damage. The wooden structure twisted and warped, wood flooring and wainscoting rotted, plaster ceilings fell and masonry veneer buckled. Exterior architectural features deteriorated with time, as well, and were removed and discarded.
By 2004, when the decision was made to repurpose the building, the path forward was not clear. Because of existing building conditions and perceptions of conflict between existing configurations and new program requirements, there was significant pressure to demolish everything except the building’s masonry shell. Working with university representatives, however, the architects were able to gradually develop a strategy for saving the building and restoring the original design.
At the outset, the architects worked with university administration to edit and simplify the program of administrative offices, suites and conference rooms. Test fits confirmed that the majority of the original design could accommodate the new use. Layouts were developed and approved that left most spaces and all corridors fully intact. A new steel endo-skeleton, addressing water damage and contemporary seismic requirements, was dropped in through the roof and carefully threaded vertically and horizontally through existing partitions and above ceilings, for minimal architectural impact. With programmatic and structural challenges resolved, additional archival photos were discovered that not only documented the original design but reinforced the cultural importance of the building to the university. The decision was then made to rehabilitate the building historically accurately.
Original ventilating louvers in transoms over the corridor doors were left in place, with clear glass panels placed behind them, for acoustic privacy. Original doors were restored. Original windows were removed, restored and reinstalled; “storm windows” were introduced on the interior, within the sash, to provide thermal efficiency and preserve the original appearance. Layers of retrofitted flooring were removed to reveal original hardwood floors, which were restored throughout or replaced in-kind where rotted. Layers of paint were removed from beaded board wainscots to reveal original stain, which was then restored. Because plaster ceilings were severely damaged at corridors, loose plaster was removed along with exposed retrofitted sprinkler piping and electrical conduit. New systems were reinstalled tight against the existing plaster and a new gypsum board ceiling was installed, with historically accurate “schoolhouse” pendant fixtures. Because there were several original early layers of paint colors uncovered, existing plaster walls were restored and painted a neutral beige. Restrooms were expanded in the original restroom/shower locations and brought to current code. Stairs and guardrails were left in place with extensions added at guardrails for code compliance.
Exterior porches at the south and north had largely disappeared. Remaining parts of several column capitals were recombined and assembled into one complete column capital, to create a mold to replicate the remaining seven. One original column also remained which was used to replicate the others. Trim and balustrades, long gone, were recreated through archival photographs. An unsightly handicap ramp was removed from the main entry portico and a new one was placed at the less prominent south entry. Reinforcing rods were set into mortar joints to stabilize exterior masonry where buckling had occurred due to structural damage. Rotted rafters were mostly replaced and new campus-standard terra cotta profile roofing was installed to match the profile of the original roof.
Every effort was made by the owner, architects and contractor to restore the original intent of this straightforward design without embellishment or gratuitous interpretation. The result is a building that once again has become a point of pride for the university and stands as testimony to the vision of a remarkable campus leader