History of the Fireproof Building Charleston South Carolina

The Fireproof Building at 100 Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina was built in the 1820s and has not only survived a fire but also a war, an earthquake and a number of hurricanes. The original intention was to construct a number of buildings, including an arts centre, as part of a new city square project. In the end, the Fireproof Building was the only one to proceed. It was designed by Robert Mills and constructed by John G Spindle, and was originally called the Charleston District Record Building. It has also been known as the County Records Building.

Mills was the first professional architect born in the US and was a keen advocate of using fireproof materials in buildings. His interest in fireproofing is thought to have started around 1812 when he designed Virginia’s Monumental Church on a site where 72 people had died in a theatre fire the year before. There is some controversy over whether Mills was indeed the designer of the Fireproof Building. Mills took over from William Jay as the architect to the Board of Public Works in South Carolina in 1821 and may have inherited the design as one of a number left behind by Jay. Nevertheless, Mills is usually credited as the designer, based on drawings from 1822.

The three story building was constructed between 1823 and 1827 in the Palladian style, derived from 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio. The building uses the perspective and symmetry of ancient Greek and Roman temples, with its roof line and four large Doric columns of 3.5 feet in diameter. Solid masonry was used throughout, including a stone basement, columns and cornices. The stone stairs are cantilevered and lit by a skylight. Brick was used for both the external and internal walls. A copper covering was placed on the roof, while the sashes, frames and shutters are made of iron. Non-essentials and any combustible materials were rejected, giving it an austere appearance. But it was highly suited for the purpose it was built, which was to house the county records. When completed, it was regarded as the most fireproof building in the US, and is thought to be the country’s oldest fireproof building still standing today.

The building’s first big test was in 1861 when a massive fire raged through Charleston destroying much of the city. The fire burnt out the top floor but the first floor with the county records was saved due to the fireproofing measures. Just after the Civil War, when hostilities between Unionists and Confederates were still high, the copper roof was stolen. It was replaced by tin. The building withstood a hurricane with 120 mph winds in 1885, further hurricanes in 1893 and 1911, and category four Hurricane Hugo in 1989. A severe earthquake hit the city in 1886, measuring between 7 and 8 on the Richter scale and nearly destroying it, but the Fireproof Building remained largely intact. After the earthquake, the pediment was removed and the outside staircases which were initially curved were now angled.

Main occupiers of the building have been Charleston County and the South Carolina Historical Society. After an initial period housing the county records, county offices also occupied the building from 1865. This has included the coroner’s and tax offices. The historical society, which was founded in 1855, first moved into the building in 1859, leaving at the end of the Civil War in 1865. In 1943, the county vacated the top two floors and leased them to the historical society. It has been the society’s headquarters since 1968, while the county continued to use the basement until 1969. The building has been in continuous use since its construction.

The continued existence of the building has more or less been assured since the 1920s when organized historical preservation of buildings and other sites got its start. An official survey of this and many other buildings was conducted in 1926. Its history and value to the community was outlined at this time. In 1967, an Architectural Survey of Charleston by Dr William Murtagh of the National Register of Historical Places, Prof. Bernard Lemann of Tulane University School of Architecture, and two consultants commented that the structure was exceptional and of the highest architectural quality. They regarded the craftsmanship of the various parts of the building as elegant and innovative, and stated: “The structure is to be preserved and protected in situ at all costs.” Largely as a result of this survey, the building was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. In 1973, it became a National Historic Landmark.

Various renovations have been carried out over the years, in addition to those conducted after fire, earthquake and hurricane damage. In 1961, the exterior was waterproofed, and the roof was renewed later in that decade. Restoration work was conducted in 1970 and further major renovations were completed in 2002. Over the years, renovations have included air conditioning, better lighting and plumbing, new equipment to help conserve the collections, and internal painting. Most of the fireplaces have been sealed.

The Fireproof Building is regarded as Charleston’s best known classical building. It is currently occupied by the South Carolina Historical Society and is open from 9am to 5pm on Monday to Friday and from 9am to 2pm on Saturday. It has a large library collection where members can conduct their research into local history at no cost and non-members pay $5.