Blog, Historic Buildings

The History and Character of Buildings

April 8, 2016

A client of ours has an office on the second floor of a mixed-use building in a high-end retail development that they designed.  It’s a beautiful development—the buildings are tastefully designed and the site is thoughtfully laid out. The building’s masonry, details, textures, and colors flow well with the storefronts of the high-end retailers and the expensive apartments above.  

Defining the character of a building

However, when walking through the site, I felt like like something was missing.  Some critical spice was missing from this masala blend of capitalism and design.  This nagging feeling stayed with me as I walked down the main road until I came across the central fountain and a mother chasing her kids through it. And then all at once, it hit me: This development, in all its beauty and design grace was missing one thing: character.    

A person’s character is created by their actions.  A building’s character is created by the events inside it and the history it witnesses. The client’s project is only one year old. Not enough time has passed for people to build memories within. Not enough time has passed for people to age with it. And that’s what I was sensing. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; everything new has to start at the beginning, and character only comes with time.

With history comes character

Now, contrast all that with 202 E. Main St. in Rock Hill. This building was constructed in 1924 for the Rock Hill supply company. Over the years it has been a supply company, a furniture store, a photography studio, and an antique warehouse.  It witnessed the great depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the roofing over of downtown Rock Hill in 1977.  It has also had nearly 4 generations of people walk through its doors. We’ll never know how many laughs, tears, jokes, and arguments that building has heard over the years—but we do know that all of them combined with its 92-year history have given it a character of its own.  

You feel it as soon as you walk through the front doors. That feeling of accomplishment, of observed wisdom, and of quiet loudness.  Big tip-of-the hat to Vinyet Architecture of Rock Hill for fusing the character of 202 E. Main with modern design to create a unique blend of old and new which beckons the passer-by to look inside.  Kudos to building co-owner Joe Lanford for continuing to try new things. (Joe led the effort to build a roof over downtown Rock Hill and jumped at the chance to refurbish 202 E. Main.)  And congrats to SPAN Enterprises and SecondBrick Events who had the foresight to want offices with pizazz and style.

Historic projects are challenging—and rewarding

VP Engineering has repurposed several dozen buildings over the years.  We have a good deal of experience with these types of projects and can say without a doubt they all have one thing in common:  They pose challenges you couldn’t conceive of before construction starts. Water damage, failing structure, bat guano, tight ceilings, insufficient space…all these issues remain hidden until the hammers start swinging.  

Every new construction decision impacts several previous decisions, and they always seem to impact a budget which is never quite large enough.  Fitting MEP systems into an old building is a challenge which requires careful coordination between the architect, engineer, GC, and owner.  

For 202 E. Main, deciding which MEP systems and components to use and where to place them required several coordinative iterations between the architect and MEP engineers.  The RFIs and phone calls were frequent, but the end result was worth it.  A historic building in downtown Rock Hill has gotten a new lease on life and sits waiting to grow its character for another 92 years.