To Market, To Market

The revitalized Charleston City Market thrives after a 17-month restoration

When Charleston City Market was renovated in 1973, it spawned scores of historic revitalization projects in the city's downtown business district. But as growing numbers of restorations established "The Holy City" as a heritage-rich tourist magnet, the market—often called the most-visited site in Charleston—fell behind.

"City Market was the first revitalization project," says Lawrence O. Thompson, who has held a variety of positions in city government. "Things grew up around it, but it did not keep up with the pace of revitalization."

Constructed in 1841, the Market Hall and Sheds, a National Historic Landmark, stands on land donated by the Pinckney family in 1788 specifically for a city market. During the Civil War, the Greek Revival main building operated as a recruiting office for the Confederate army.

By 2008, the 18,000-square-foot structure (which also houses the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum), suffered from a leaking roof, rotten woodwork, bricks that needed repointing, plus spreading mold and mildew. The deteriorating site still drew millions of visitors, but after the lease ran out on the city-owned property, three local business owners stepped in to revitalize the landmark.

Hank Holliday and Steve Varn formed the City Market Preservation Trust, took a 22-year lease on the property, and began a nearly $6 million restoration. Getting the market's 295 indoor and outdoor vendors to share the Preservation Trust's vision took patience, according to Thompson, who joined Holliday and Varn as managing partner.

"We had a two-year standstill so they could get to know us and we could get to know them, we could discuss problems, discuss opportunities, and figure out what the best path was," Thompson says. "Our biggest challenge was gaining their confidence."

Some creative shifting of shop locations allowed vendors to operate while workers painted ceilings, repointed brick, added lighting and fans, and reoriented the counters in the three open-air buildings on site. Crews also eliminated parking spaces so that vehicles would no longer obstruct the main building. During the project's second phase, which started in November 2010, workers restored the original layout for stalls and created a great hall with indoor shops flanking a restored central bluestone pathway.

"They have definitely improved the functionality of the spaces and made it an even more enjoyable place," says John Hildreth, director of the National Trust's Southern Office in Charleston.

Photographs, some from the 1860s, helped guide principal architect Glenn F. Keyes in reviving the market's historic character.

"As soon as photography became available, people were taking photographs of the market," says Keyes, a National Trust advisor. "We could sort of watch the market evolve through photography, and by using that resource, we reconstructed some elements that had been removed over time."

Members of the Historic Charleston Foundation, the market's anchor tenant, say they're encouraged to see that since June, when the restoration was completed, the revitalized city market has been attracting both tourists and longtime residents.

"You can really see and feel the history of the market, not only in the market itself, but in the architectural integrity," says the foundation's Executive Director Kitty Robinson. "It's given us this unique opportunity to share our mission and our commitment with the visitors and locals alike."

Plans to rebuild an outbuilding lost in a 1938 tornado and use it as a farmers' market are in the initial phase, but Keyes says he and his fellow preservationists are currently focused on appreciating a job well done.

"Everybody who visits Charleston will go to the market because it's just one of those places you migrate to," Keyes says. "It's right in the center of everything. It's been great to see it coming back to life."

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.