Developer Richard Burts is as close to a preservation evangelist as Columbia has to offer.
He risked $7 million in 2006 to transform the Olympia mill village community center from a rotting, roofless hulk targeted by the city for demolition, into 701 Whaley, one of the city’s premier arts and event centers. He also was at the forefront of efforts to save the Palmetto Compress building from demolition and has been a chief advocate for the preservation of historic buildings at Bull Street.
Now Burts has set out on a new crusade to expand 701 Whaley by about one third.
His plans are nearly finalized after a year of public meetings, 10 different configurations and a whole lot of quiet contemplation.
“You don’t force” a building to become something it’s not, said Burts. “You just roll with it. That’s what you do with old buildings. They will tell you what they want to be if you just listen.”
Renovations include turning the gymnasium in the rear of the building into a convertible performing arts center of up to 600 seats — a venue for years that has been at the top of the arts and music community’s wish list — and the pool into a small reception area.
More than 150 people have contributed ideas for the expansion over the past year — and more ideas are always welcome, said Tom Chinn, 701’s general manager.
“It’s always been a community building,” he said. “So many people have made this a success.”
But more importantly, said Lee Ann Kornegay, an independent filmmaker and 701’s chief advocate, the building’s redevelopment has shown that even the most challenging historic structures can be reused. It is a roadmap, she said, for what can be done with buildings like Palmetto Compress and those at Bull Street.
“It is an absolutely unique place,” she said.
‘A cultural oasis’
Burts was one of Five Points’ leading developers and restaurateurs in the 1990s, renovating spaces and starting eateries such as Monterrey Jack’s, Hannah Jane’s, Big Al’s, Saluda’s and Poor Richard’s Fat Belly Deli. Hootie and the Blowfish played and hung out at Monterrey Jack’s “all the time,” Burts said. Lead singer Darius Rucker worked at Poor Richard’s.
But his interest in historic buildings, the arts and music led Burts to a huge leap of faith in 2006 when he and Robert Lewis purchased the crumbling 38,000-square-foot 701 Whaley building.
The building at Whaley Street and Olympia Avenue was built in 1909 and served as the community center for the former Olympia and Granby Mill villages. It was the heartbeat of the community for decades, where children played and swam and adults came together for dances and dinners.
But the mills closed and the community center’s storefronts and 53 windows were bricked up for a furniture warehouse.
Promoter Jack Gerstner bought the building in 1996 and held art shows and concerts for a brief time until the roof collapsed in a 2000 rainstorm.
For years, Gerstner raised donations for repairs but didn’t do the work. He sold the building to Burts and Lewis in 2007 in part to avoid jail time for allowing the building to become a public nuisance – a home for rats and feral cats.
The developers – with help from California-based developer Bob McConnell and government and community groups – brought the building back to its former glory with a sometimes excruciating focus on historical accuracy. At one point, Burts was captured on film scrounging through a landfill trying to find a piece of one of the building’s century-old columns.
At the time Burts described the project as “our little part of helping to preserve the past,” according to his 2013 Preservation Leadership award from the Historic Columbia Foundation. But the renovation also helped spur a renaissance in the mill villages around it.
“The infusion of life and activity helped the mill village to a tremendous degree,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides development in The Vista, Olympia and other downtown areas. “It brought a cultural oasis to that neighborhood. It’s been a long, long time since Olympia and Granby have seen that type of vitality.”
Setting the bar
In October, Burts and his large group of supporters will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the building’s reopening. It hosts about 300 events a year, from the risqué “What’s Love” Valentine’s Day party (which require the large windows in the building’s grand hall to be covered), to the USC School of Medicine’s annual Black Tie/White Coat Gala.
The building also hosts the 701 Center for Contemporary Art, and artist in residency program, apartment and offices. Delk said that because of the large range of events, from eclectic art happenings to traditional weddings, 701 has had an effect throughout the city.
“It’s set a new cultural bar for Columbia, from odd ball activities to every elegant activity in the same interesting space. Now he can continue to expand that.”
The addition would increase the art center’s size to 47,000 square feet from 38,000 square feet. The back half of the structure has been occupied by the Hardee family’s Neil Parts Rebuilders since the 1960s, and until recently the building had been filled with piles of generators and other auto parts.
Burts purchased the building in November for an undisclosed price and said the renovations will cost “conservatively” about $4 million. Planning for the expansion has been boosted by a $20,000 grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission and support from the city of Columbia.
The new features include:
• A convertible performance hall in the old gymnasium that can seat up to 600 people
• A new addition on the back that will house a stage and backstage area
• Enclosure of the center’s 60-year-old swimming pool. The pool, now full of auto parts, trees and brush, will be cleaned out, re-roofed and covered over with glass as a unique space for smaller weddings and parties.
• A garden area, perhaps with fire pits and an outdoor bar
Further cleanup of the building should begin this fall, with construction hopefully starting sometime next year. Burts is still putting together a funding plan.
“We’re trying to figure out how all this fits together,” he said.