Charleston City Market getting face-lift

CHARLESTON - Behind a metal fence surrounding two buildings of the historic City Market, masons sawed into mortar that, for more than 160 years, has held the brick structures together.

A crew will repoint some 80,000 linear feet of the stuff, carefully removing the unsightly patch jobs and restoring the mortar with historical accuracy.

That's the level of detail sought in the Market's first face-lift in decades.

With little fanfare, city officials and the City Market Preservation Trust launched their $5 million restoration to the key tourist attraction earlier this week.

From now until the anticipated May completion, vendors will move around to accommodate the construction workers, but business carries on as usual.

Standing with family members at the Virginia Smalls' Veggies stand behind a spread of rice, spices and sauces, Donn Gilliard said Tuesday marked her first day back in the Market after the New Year's holiday.

With her space pushed back five feet to accommodate an extra row of vendors from the sheds already under renovation, Gilliard said she didn't see any problems.

"I know everybody in the other buildings," she said. "It's just a big family. As long as everyone can make a dollar, it's OK."

The first part of the two-phase project will refurbish the two sheds between Church and State streets. That two-month undertaking includes brick re-pointing, roof repair and replacement, floor upgrades, security camera installation and lighting and air improvements.

Vendors from those two sheds moved into the third shed on East Bay Street, where Gilliard works, and into the open-air portion of Market Hall at Meeting Street.

Restoration of the East Bay Street shed begins when the first phase is completed, and merchants there will move to the other two buildings and to tents on South Market Street, which will be closed between Church and State streets.

The East Bay Street building renovation includes the same improvements as in the other two sheds, plus a new restroom mid-way through the building. The second phase also should take two months, with the Market's reopening set for May.

City Market Preservation Trust - a group composed of hotelier Hank Holliday, real estate professional Steve Varn and businessman Laurie Thompson - took over management of the buildings in October 2008. City officials and the group announced restoration plans a year later.

Holliday called the project "a cosmetic top-down renovation.

"The Market has been without capital improvements for over 30 years," he added.

He said the project should make the Market more functional and attractive, while better incorporating it into the city. New counter tops between the brick archways will let vendors sell to customers both inside and outside the sheds.

Holliday said crews will work on the shops behind the head Market building on Meeting Street in the fall. Funding for the multimillion-dollar endeavor will come from a revenue bond supported by the rent that Market vendors pay to the city.

Established in 1804, the attraction is one of the nation's oldest public markets. Its buildings date to 1841, and it houses 265 active vendors.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called the Market "a special place, offering a focal point for Charleston's commercial activity since its early beginnings." "We all look forward to the completed projects which will offer new energy and excitement for this favorite area," he said.

Walking one of the emptied Market sheds, Hightower Construction superintendent Paul Willis described the future look: fresh ceiling paint, new wooden beams and floors stripped clean of the chewing gum stains. By Tuesday afternoon electrical demolition already had been completed.

"It's not that we have a lot of time here," he said. "So we've got to go."