COLUMBIA, SC — The Brennen Building the oldest building on Columbias Main Street, reportedly built circa 1870, and home to the legendary Capitol Cafe from 1911 to 2002 will become bank offices, meeting space and perhaps a restaurant once again.
First Citizens Bank, which purchased the building in 2002, is in the midst of a total renovation of the unique Victorian-style building, one of the first to be built on Main Street after downtown Columbia was torched during the Civil War.
When finished, the landmark building promises to boost Main Streets renaissance and help serve as a bridge between Main Street and The Vista. It also sets an example of how preserving and reusing historic buildings can benefit both the owners and the community with creative thinking and extra effort, historic preservationists said.
The building had its challenges, but First Citizens is doing it right, said Matt Kennell, executive director of City Center Partnership, which encourages and guides development in the central business district. This will be a focal point for the public and an active part of the community once again.
The renovation also comes as developers want to tear down the Palmetto Compress building on Blossom Street because they say it would be too costly to renovate, and could help frame the upcoming discussion about the dozen or so historic structures on the old State Hospital Campus on Bull Street.
When you get the right people around the table, these projects become doable, said Robin Waites, executive director of the Historic Columbia Foundation. And when they are finished, people see how these historic structures become jewels for the city.
Intricacies you dont find in new buildings
The French Victorian-style building occupies a prominent space half a block from the State House. It is built in a style of architecture once common along Main Street using ornate cast iron columns, windows and balcony but now rare in the city.
Architects from Columbia firm Studio 2LR studied images from Galveston, Texas, to draw inspiration for some of the façade renovations.
The firms vice president, Tripp Riley, said the buildings distinctive cast iron columns, balcony and eyebrows over the windows are being restored. Also, architects were surprised to find many of the interior features were very well preserved, including heart pine flooring, original roof beams and doors, trusses and fireplaces.
He said it was fun to find all of the intricacies of the construction that you dont find in new buildings.
The building is two stories, with two complete storefronts in front and two wings in the back were separated by an open space that once served as a loading dock or parking area. While the interior features were surprisingly well preserved, the foundation and outside brick walls were in poor condition, Riley said.
If it would have been left alone for much longer it might have fallen down, Riley said.
Builders from Hood Construction had to almost reconstruct portions of the back of the left wing because of damage through the years. And they converted the open space into a gallery with a clerestory high windows above eye level to let outside light into the newly enclosed space.
The second floor will be home to the banks wealth management department, with offices complete with century-old fire places, doors and hardware and faced with unique outdoor windows and original wood lap siding.
People are probably fighting over those offices, Kennell said.
Building a bridge
The structure was built just four or so years after much of downtown Columbia was burned during the Civil War in 1865, according to Historic Columbia. It was also built before Main Street was Main Street. It was known as Richardson Street before 1891.
The building was named for Irish immigrant Michael Brennen, who operated a carriage factory at the corner of Washington and Sumter streets following the Civil War. Brennen purchased the building shortly after its construction.
After Brennens death, its ownership went to his wife, Mary, and, son E.J. His son later operated a grocery out of the building.
By the early 20th century, the Etheredge Motor Co. and the Columbia Motor Co. established Columbias first automobile dealerships in the Brennen Building. The offices, garage and showrooms were all housed on the premises.
In 1911, the Capitol City Cafe, moved into the site. And for the next 91 years it served as a popular gathering spot for its eclectic clientele, which ranged from the politically powerful to the homeless, and nearly everything in between.
For years, on Tuesdays when the Legislature was in session, lawmakers adjourned to the site to eat, drink, play music and cut deals. Some said more work got done in the cafe than in the chambers of the State House.
First Citizens spokeswoman Angela English said the bank is still searching for a tenant.
Weve had several express an interest, she said, but none have reached the final stages.
Kennell, for one, hopes it is a restaurant, not only to revisit the past of the Capitol Café, but to build on the other new restaurants near the corner of Main and Gervais Colas, The Oak Table and a renovated Capital City Club.
Were getting more and more chef-driven restaurants and they could feed off each other, he said. And that foodie area could help build a bridge between Main Street and The Vista.
Setting an example for preservation
In addition to the offices for their wealth management team, First Citizens envisions the second storefront becoming a combination of remote office and meeting space for their clients and an event space for business and community meetings. It would be accompanied by an adjoining outdoor courtyard.
English said the renovations demonstrate our long-standing commitment to the city and its development.
But it wasnt always so.
The bank prior to 2006 wanted to raze the building because they deemed it too expensive to renovate and reuse, even though the building was on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a city landmark. It is the same argument the owners and developers of the Palmetto Compress Building are making today.
At the time, the bank tried to convince City Council to allow them to save only the façade and develop the property differently.
We always envisioned a larger master plan for that block, English said.
But in the face of opposition of the demolition both in the community and on City Council, the bank found a way to make it work using local and state tax credits and being willing to step up financially. Architects and builders are working closely with the S.C. Department of Archives and History to ensure the renovations conform to guidelines which qualify the building for the tax credits.
The tax credits made the monetary investment economically viable both short and long term, English said.
The bank wont say how much the project costs. But were proud to be making such a significant investment in the downtown corridor of Columbia.
Waites said the project is an example to owners of other historic properties that a way can be found to preserve their structures.
One of the great things is that the bank chose to put their own staff in there, she said. That shows an ownership and appreciation of the building that we wouldnt have expected five years ago.