The pioneers

Pluck and imagination guided Vista pioneers to create homes

mlucas@thestate.comApril 25, 2013 

— They fell in love with the old warehouses of the Congaree Vista and early on saw the potential for a vibrant district, with restaurants, galleries, shops and more.

Rosie Craig, owner of M Craig and Co., and Clark Ellefson, owner of Lewis + Clark, are Vista pioneers.

But they didn’t just work there, they moved into great spaces, established roots, created great pioneer digs and helped turn the Vista into what it is today.

Rosie Craig

For the past 14 years, Rosie Craig has called 807 Gervais St. home.

The stately three-story, brick Dupre Building has served as both home and office to Craig, who fell in love with the place in the early 1980s.

When the property came up for sale in 1997, Craig’s late husband, Michael, came home “with fire in his eyes.” Owners of M Craig and Co. Cabinetmakers, the two had outgrown their Lady Street address and were looking for another space.

“He said, ‘Here’s your building, honey,’ ... and I said, ‘You’re nuts,’” she said, laughing. Eventually he won her over, and the couple closed on the property in 1998.

Having renovated two properties in Columbia, including 911 Lady St., now home to the Columbia Development Corp., Craig was no stranger to work.

But the 38,000-square-foot property – built in 1919 to house a Model T and tractor dealership – came with more than a few design challenges. That included a cargo elevator that needed to be modernized and a largely formless interior that Craig describes as a “big bunch of nothing.”

Craig would go on to renovate the building from top to bottom, dividing the space into storefronts and office suites and converting a portion of the third floor into her home. She installed a rooftop garden two years later – one of her favorite places to be in the building.

One Sunday morning, Craig said, “Michael and I are sitting (on the rooftop) with our backs to the sun. We were drinking coffee and reading the funny pages, and Eric and Angela Nord called us and said, ‘I bet you think no one can see you up there.’”

The Nords, the original owners of Motor Supply Co., had converted a space atop the restaurant into a loft and were one of the Craigs’ nearest neighbors.

“Once I built the deck, my girlfriends and I would go up there and lay on our stomachs and take our tops off and sun up there because we’re on top of everything and didn’t think anyone could see anything,” said Craig, laughing. “... Until we realized it wasn’t private, that’s what we did.”

Today, the building, with a beautiful egg-and-dart cornice, pressed-tin ceilings, brass doors, iron and wood banisters and other exquisite details brought in from New York and repurposed, serves as an architectural showcase for the Vista. And Craig said the location is a lot of fun.

“Walking out your door and 15 feet later being in (Restaurante) Divino’s never hurts,” she said.

Clark Ellefson

If you’ve driven by One Eared Cow Glass along Huger Street lately, you might have wondered about the tall, metallic building in the back of the parking lot.

Made of wood and steel, the two-story structure, with stylish modern deck attached, is the newest home for artist and business owner Clark Ellefson, and it may be the first of many artist spaces coming to the area.

Yes, the Vista pioneer has new digs.

One of the earliest Vista residents, Ellefson has lived and worked there since 1980 when he and then-business partner, Jim Lewis, opened Lewis + Clark furniture makers along Lincoln Street.

Inspired by the old buildings of such neighborhoods as SoHo in New York’s Lower Manhattan, Ellefson and Lewis wanted a similar feeling space in Columbia where they could live and work and attract other artists as well.

They found what they were looking for in an old brick warehouse at the corner of Lincoln and Lady streets. They moved into 1231 Lincoln St. and began refurbishing the space, creating loft-style apartments upstairs and a woodshop downstairs.

“We signed a five-year lease and were scared to death,” said Ellefson, laughing.

In those days, rents were as low as a $1 a square foot. But living and working in the Vista could be challenging.

“It was kind of a rough, urban environment back then,” he said.

From car thieves to hot Columbia summers that turned their un-air-conditioned space into an oven, Ellefson and Lewis had their share of challenges. But then a number of other creative businesses began moving into the neighborhood, from cabinetmakers Michael and Rosie Craig to Molten-Lamar architects.

In 1988, Lewis left the business and the following year, Ellefson bought the neighboring spaces at 1217-1223 Lincoln St. Ellefson created two leasable office spaces and a gallery, The Meteor. Later, as rents began to go up, he subdivided the space to create additional income. In 1992, Ellefson opened another business, what would become the wildly popular Art Bar around the corner, on Lady Street.

“It was the only bar in the area at the time,” Ellefson said.

Meanwhile, rent continued to go up and he was still leasing the place where he lived. In 2005, Ellefson teamed up with local glassmakers Mark Woodham and Tommy Lockart. The three purchased a 6,000 square-foot warehouse along Huger Street.

A short jaunt off Gervais Street, the metal and steel warehouse is not as old or romantic as the brick-sided, wood-ceiling warehouses of the Vista, Ellefson said. But it’s what he thinks the next generation of Vista buildings will look like as the district extends down cross streets.

By adding an additional 2,000 square feet to the back, Ellefson was able to move Lewis + Clark, which now focuses mainly on handmade postmodern art lamps, into the back portion of the warehouse, while One Eared Cow Glass moved into the front. With large rollup glass garage doors, modern light fixtures and a loft-style office, the new studio and gallery is functional and stylish.

Just across the parking lot, his new “pre-engineered” home has a similar look and feel, with steel beams, modern kitchen, staircase and cabinetry, all designed and handmade by Ellefson.

Ellefson is now working with the city and the Columbia Development Corp. to conceptualize a development for the 1½ acres behind the property.

That site, on a new block that will be created when Williams and Pendleton streets are extended, is part of the city’s and the University of South Carolina’s Innovista district. Zoned for live-work units, the property will be developed for artists – hopefully in a couple of years, Ellefson said. It will called “Stormwater Studios” – a nod to the nearby floodplain.

“It’s the new frontier,” Ellefson said.

Having an area set aside for artists and craftsmen is important, Ellefson says. Artists helped build the Vista, and they continue to be an economic driver.

“Columbia is discovering art is an important part of people’s lives,” he said.

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