Longtime sweetgrass basket weaver Louise Jefferson has spent more than 30 years of her life at the City Market in downtown Charleston. Over the years, she has watched the historic buildings erode with age.
The spread of freshly woven baskets at her feet aren't enough to distract tourists from the crumbling brick column behind her. The off-white mortar has slowly chipped away from between the bricks, leaving a hollow, angular maze.
"They've been cracking up like that for years," she said.
The City Market sheds are now the target of a multimillion-dollar makeover, which planners say could restore a sense of pride to the city's central business district and main tourist hub. The renovations, which are scheduled to start after the holiday season, will affect three of four sheds that make up about half of the market's 40,000 square feet.
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The proposed changes range from adding a basic coat of paint to repointing the mortar between the bricks using a historically accurate technique. The fixes are likely to bring the most dramatic upgrade the market sheds have seen since their last major renovation in the 1970s.
"It's presently in a state of neglect from the roof all the way to the floors," said Hank Holliday, a principal of City Market Preservation Trust LLC, which manages the market and has proposed the renovations. He partnered with Lawrence Thompson and Steve Varn to form the group.
The infrastructure problems with the sheds start with the ceilings, which have cracked roof tiles and holes that let rainwater stream in during a downpour. The repaired roofs will be vented to help with the summer heat. At the floor level, workers will remove the black gum spots, which visitors have stamped onto the historic bluestone over the years.
Some changes will give a nod to the past. Historic photographs show that visitors used to approach vendors from outside the buildings, doing business over countertops fitted between each brick archway, said local architect Glenn Keyes.
Those countertops will be replicated, which could allow vendors to market their wares to visitors walking both inside and outside the buildings.
Other changes are functional. The group will install new entrances at the midpoint of each shed, and they'll add much-needed bathrooms in the building closest to East Bay Street.
Workers also will paint the ceilings, put in new fans and install lights that will illuminate the inside roof space.
The proposed changes could give the market a more colorful, polished feeling. The market's 265 vendors will have a chance to hang signs above their spaces, and design plans also call for color-coordinated awnings and umbrellas for sweetgrass basket weavers who sit at the sheds' entrances.
"As one of the oldest public markets in the country, with the first covered spaces being built in 1841, it deserves a renovation which will allow it to remain an energetic meeting place and to expand its functions and vitality," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said in a statement.
City Market Preservation Trust officials drafted the renovation plans after an extensive study of other public markets in places such as San Francisco, Boston and New Orleans. They also hired public market consultant David O'Neil to advise the project.
The Charleston project likely will be paid for with roughly $5 million in municipal bonds.
Construction is scheduled to kick off in January and wrap up by April, before the height of tourist season. In the fall, workers will begin renovating the Market Hall building, which is composed largely of enclosed shops and is anchored by the Daughters of the Confederacy building at Meeting and Market streets.
Beyond that, the group could extend the city market toward Union Pier, ultimately connecting the sheds with the Charleston Harbor waterfront.