The Cigar Factory, a jewel in the architectural treasure chest that is Charleston, SC, has a long history.
“I tell the young architects in my office, sometimes projects can take seven years from start to finish,” said Ron Stang, AIA, LEED AP, and chairman of the architectural firm Stevens & Wilkinson, Atlanta. “This one’s pushing nine.”
“This one” is the Cigar Factory, one of the jewels in the architectural treasure chest that is Charleston, SC. “The building is iconic in Charleston,” said William Cogswell, principal, WECCO Development, Charleston. “Everybody knows the Cigar Factory. It’s a very unique building and to say a single building stands out in Charleston is saying something.”
It is the site of what is thought to be the first singing of “We Shall Overcome” in a moment of civil rights and labor activism (see sidebar). Yet its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places is not for its role in America’s struggles for equality, but for its standing as one of the city’s few remaining Victorian-era industrial buildings and its key role in the region’s textile and tobacco industries.
Built in 1881 as a cotton mill, the five-story, 244,000-sq.-ft. structure was converted in 1912 into a factory for the American Tobacco Co., and it remained one into the 1970s. It is actually nine buildings that over time were consolidated into a single structure.
Once the American Tobacco Co. ceased its Charleston operations, the building found other purposes—first as an office building and eventually as the home of a Johnson & Wales Univ. campus. Beginning in 2006, it stood empty—a big and doleful reminder of what had been.
TSO Cigar Factory LLC, headed by The Simpson Organization and Atlanta developer Boyd Simpson, purchased the property in 2007 with the idea of creating 66 condominiums over a mix of retail and office space.
They opened a sales office and took deposits. With Stevens and Wilkinson and Trident Construction, North Charleston, SC, leading the way, Stang said demolition and construction “started in earnest.” However, six months after commencement, the recession hit. Things went from bad to worse when Silverton Bank, the bank that was funding Simpson’s project, failed. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stepped in and soon pulled the plug on Simpson’s loan, forcing him to shut down the project in 2009. Legal wrangling ensued for the next few years. The case was eventually settled out of court, with Simpson retaining the building.
To “create a little street presence” for the retail on the ground level, a steel-and-timber canopy runs along the front of the property. Hung off the building with steel tie rods, it features exposed timber decking underneath.
Meanwhile, the property had caught the attention of Cogswell and his Atlanta-based partner Jay Weaver, of Weaver Capital Partners.
“I was fascinated by its economic history and its relationship to the city,” Cogswell said. “At the time of construction, there was nothing going on here. Originally, it was built as a textile mill, and that became an industry that not only lifted Charleston out of the dark days of Reconstruction, but the South, as well. So it was a big breath of fresh air when private investors put it together back in 1886.”
Cogswell and Weaver headed up the ownership group, Cigar Factory Development LLC, which purchased the property in April of 2014. They were backed by joint-venture partner Federal Capital Partners, a privately held real-estate investment firm out of Chevy Chase, MD. Their plan differed from Simpson’s.
“When we came in, my intent was to take it to commercial,” Cogswell said. “Residential— especially the condo market—was dead. Charleston has a pretty strong office demand and there wasn’t a lot of what I call ‘creative office’ in the region.” The building was not resistant to being massaged in a new direction. “Because they hadn’t really started residential build-out—they had just done core and shell work—we were able to come in and utilize a lot of the work they had done and keep going with it,” he explained.
He decided to retain the team of Stevens and Wilkinson and Trident Construction. “We knew the building. We had done so much work on it,” said Stang. “We had a building permit, reams of drawings, all the engineering. We had gone through the BAR, we had gone through all the other approvals…so we started to help them reframe up the deal to be office space in lieu of where the condos were going to be on the top four floors.”
Added Cogswell, “I remember thinking we could go in a different direction, but if something blows up in the future, I’ll look back and say I wish I’d gone with the original team.” More to the point, he knew both teams, and knew the quality of their work and reputations. “Plus they both had a real interest in the property, more than just financially. In the end, it was a pretty easy choice,” he said.
Their plan differed in another important way, too. Cogswell’s group decided to pursue historic tax credits. Cogswell said the entire team shared a vision for “the kind of renovations that we wanted to do on the property. We wanted to do it right. We didn’t want to go in and put product in–windows for example–that weren’t in keeping with the historical context, because we’d only end up devaluing it. Ron (Stang), Trident, and the lender were all on the same page, but, of course, that does bring the cost up.”
Not only did the team earn federal tax credits, it received two from the state, including one reserved specifically for the redevelopment of historic textile mills. “It was a very complicated structure,” Cogswell said, “but it ended up working very well for us, so we were able to do the development the way we all wanted it to be done.”
In the summer of 2015, the Cigar Factory reopened its doors—this time as Charleston’s premier mixed-use destination for high-end retail, professional, culinary, and event experiences. Current and soon-to-be tenants range from Garden and Gun magazine, and Mercantile and Mash—a food hall and casual bar—to the Clemson Univ. College of Architecture’s School of Planning, Development, and Preservation. The restoration’s long odyssey is a testament to the kind of persistence that Stang encourages in his protégés.
Over the years, many of the original window openings had been bricked in, adding stability to the structure. When those bricks were removed during the redevelopment, seismic reinforcing was accomplished with pattress plates and tie-backs.
Along the way, there were several big challenges. Parking was one. In the original plan, a single parking space for each of the condo owners was to be located underneath the building. In fact, block walls had been built to separate the parking from the retail. Significantly more parking would be needed for the proposed office and retail mix.
“We didn’t have enough parking onsite to do commercial,” said Cogswell. However, a block north of the Cigar Factory sat an unoccupied strip of land that was created when the old Cooper River suspension bridge was torn down and replaced by the spectacular Ravenel Bridge. Ownership of the small corridor had been transferred from the Department of Transportation to the city.
“It would have been difficult to develop, because in Charleston, you have to pile drive everything,” said Cogswell. So he approached the mayor and proposed that the city master lease it to the Cigar Factory.
“That’s what unlocked it for us,” he said. “The key to getting the project going was the parking, but the key to the project getting completed was the tax credits.”
The building’s windows offered another challenge. Stang said, “Getting the windows right was no doubt the most important component in rehabilitating the Cigar Factory into an award-winning, successful ‘certified rehabilitation’ project.”
Getting the windows right was complicated: not only did the windows have to satisfy the rigorous National Park Service (NPS) standards, but the openings were enormous–as much as 11 ft. tall. Meanwhile, the regional code demanded that the windows be hurricane resistant.
Those are “very large windows for hurricane impact,” said Tim Cooper, southeast regional sales manager for Graham Architectural Products, York, PA, the company that would eventually be tasked with developing a window solution.
None of the original radius-top windows existed, but a blurry, old photograph gave Stang’s team an idea of what was needed: a double-hung or a single-hung window with offset upper and lower sashes. And the 100 or so wood casement windows that had already been delivered for Simpson’s project–and approved by Charleston’s BAR–couldn’t quite match that necessary profile.
Stang initially looked for a wood window, but without any luck. A search for alternatives, he said, turned up, “a few people saying they could do it in aluminum, but not of the national quality of Graham. Graham was the one window company that we got comfortable with, that was proven, and that we knew could deliver.
All the office space is leased, with tenants ranging from 1,000 to 30,000 sq. ft.
“Our firm has done a lot of historic buildings and we’ve worked a lot with Graham. We had just finished a huge project over at Georgia Tech, which was an old, 1940s dorm renovation that involved putting in historically compatible windows. So we’re very familiar with Graham and knew they were the ones who could most likely deliver what we needed to have delivered in an aluminum window.”
Still, it was a challenge for Graham. “We do National Park Service work all the time,” said Cooper, “but the size of these windows, in conjunction with the hurricane impact requirements–that’s what really made this a difficult project. Well, that and the very short time frame that we had to design and manufacture them.”
According to Stang, a lot of collaborative work took place between the National Park Service, Stevens and Wilkinson, Graham, and Richard Sidebottom, a consultant from MacRostie Historic Advisors LLC, Washington. Stang said specific hurdles included matching the jamb sightlines, rail dimensions, and mullion details of the original windows. “The National Park Service really focused on the window issue, and we had a lot of back and forth, regarding the sightlines and trim details and getting the hurricane rated, impact-resistant windows in profiles we felt were most appropriate for the building.”
“The National Park Service actually rejected our window jamb sightline once or twice so we had to redesign our frame to get them to approve it,” recalled Cooper. “We essentially had to take some metal out of our design to make it a smaller sightline, which could have been detrimental in the hurricane impact testing, because you’re pulling out some strength. So that was a hurdle our engineers had to overcome.”
Cogswell added, “Graham was critical. We have the same wind rating as Miami, but there wasn’t a window that had been engineered and tested that would work. Graham was the most proactive company in figuring out a way to engineer a custom window to meet the aesthetic needs of the park service, but also have it meet code. The windows on the building make the building.”
The event space also required some back and forth between the team and the NPS. “It was a great space with a vaulted ceiling and timber floors,” Stang said, “but it had columns running down the middle. We found a very sensitive way to take out the columns and open it up for a dance floor. The Park Service said we’ll let you take some of the columns out, but we’d like you to preserve some of the original columns. So we took a few out, (and) then added a steel tress up high. Through that compromise we were able to preserve some of what was original, while enabling the space to become functional for something today.”
Once the project was unlocked, and NPS approvals were granted, work resumed on numerous fronts.
Bats–and their droppings–had to be removed from the tower. Graffiti had to be scrubbed from walls and termite infestations had to be remediated.
More importantly, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2014 national seismic hazard map, Charleston is among the nation’s highest risk areas. The historic record attests to its vulnerability: The earthquake of 1886, one of the most damaging ever to hit the East Coast, crippled the city. Accounts indicate nearly every building had to be torn down and rebuilt, although the Cigar Factory, which was completed in 1882, apparently only lost some bricks on the tower that fronts the building.
Over the years, many of the original window openings had been bricked in, adding stability to the structure. When those bricks were removed during the redevelopment, Stang said, “We had to do a lot of seismic reinforcing with pattress plates and tie-backs.”
In addition, some of the old arch openings had to be reframed. Mortar had to be repointed and there was a lot of brick replacement and repair. “There was a good bit of care-taking with the brick and masonry restoration. It was not a total restoration as we wanted the building to maintain its longstanding patina.”
The team dug new foundations for the elevators, elevator pit, and stairways, and shored up the building in other ways. Ground water was encountered during the course of digging the foundations. Stang said the building also required a fair amount of timber remediation, both in the decking and the beams, as a result of water damage incurred during the building’s dormant time.
To “create a little street presence” for the retail on the ground level, Stevens and Wilkinson designed a steel-and-timber canopy that runs along the front of the property. “It’s very industrial looking,” said Stang. “It’s hung off the building with steel tie rods and it features exposed timber decking underneath. It’s designed to hold signage for the retail tenants and to designate the ground floor as something a little different.”
None of the original radius-top windows existed, but a blurry, old photograph gave an idea of what was needed: a double-hung or a single-hung window with offset upper and lower sashes.
In the end, the pursuit of another architectural jewel in Charleston proved worth all the sweat and effort, beyond the honors bestowed upon the finished project, including the Carolopolis award from the Preservation Society of Charleston, and recognition as one of “Preservation’s Best of 2015” by Preservation Action, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Trust Community Investment Corp.
“The tenants are over the moon on it,” Cogswell said. “All the office space is leased, with tenants ranging from 1,000 to 30,000 square feet. We have all but three small retail bays leased and we’ve kind of kept those off market because we’re pretty particular about who we have come in, especially on the retail.”
Being particular has been part of the game plan from the beginning, Cogswell said. “Jay and I both had a pretty heavy hand in making sure we catered to local and regional companies and branded the building as such. That’s kind of tough to do.”
The duo was so committed to this local brand, they deflected an overture from an interested publicly traded, AAA-credit tenant. “It just wasn’t what we wanted,” said Cogswell. “We prefer to have regional and local tenants. Fortunately, we were able to get our lenders to see the benefit in that, too.”
He continued, “The Cigar Factory has always played a major role in the economic history of the city. Now it’s put itself back out there as a major beacon of our diversified economy here in the Lowcountry. There are a lot of different types of uses that you don’t typically see in your run-of-the-mill mixed-use building, but the character and history of the building really lends itself–and gives real authenticity–to that story.”
Stang thought back on the near-decade long road to fruition and felt a good deal of satisfaction: “While it was a long, sort of arduous process, I think in the end the building and the project benefitted from the passing of time. It has a lot of new, exciting things happening, yet a lot of what was done there reflects the original vision of what we and the organizational team had put together. So, looking back, I guess I’m just happy I got to stay involved in it. We had a lot of hard work and sweat equity invested in it, so it was really fulfilling to stay involved with the second group that came through and delivered the project. And now the Cigar Factory has been reborn to serve Charleston for a full second century.”
“We Shall Overcome,” the protest song that became the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, first found its voice in the struggle for workers’ rights at the Cigar Factory in Charleston, SC.
Twelve hundred unionized workers, most of them black and female, walked off their American Tobacco Co. cigar factory jobs October 22, 1945, hoping to obtain better wages, improved benefits, fairer treatment, and the retroactive pay management had previously agreed to pay upon the conclusion of World War II. In addition to the Cigar Factory issues, Local 15’s action was part of a broader strike against the American Tobacco Co., with workers also walking out in Philadelphia and Trenton, NJ.
At the time, the American Tobacco Co. was one of Charleston’s largest employers, with young, working-class, black and white women and men providing as much as 30% of the cigars and cigarettes enjoyed by American troops overseas, as well as the most popular five- and 10-cent cigars in America.
Four days after the workers first took to the streets, Local 15 held an integrated meeting at the African American Morris Street Baptist Church, the local’s first-ever black and white union meeting. African-American union representative Marie Hodges later characterized the local as “one of the world’s greatest institutions in the breaking down of racial, religious, and national prejudices.”
During the walk-out, as strikers stood in the cold, one picketer, Lucille Simmons, would often sing “We Will Overcome,” to the tune of the spiritual “I Will Overcome One Day.” According to fellow activist Lillie Mae Marsh Doster, Simmons’ song on many occasions marked the end of another day of picketing. Doster once told an interviewer, Simmons’ song was “almost like a prayer of relief” for the workers, many of whom would join in, singing, “We will win our rights someday.”
Five difficult months later, after an unusually cold and wet Charleston winter, the strike ended. Workers received a nominal wage increase and small advances in the race-based restrictions for skilled jobs. Charleston workers received their retroactive pay, too. Perhaps most importantly, the workers gave hope to labor activists elsewhere, given that their actions attracted the attention and intervention of the federal government, yielded concessions from management, and for a time leveraged a coalition of black and white workers for the common good.
Shortly thereafter, during a visit to Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, TN, a school for labor organizers, members of Charleston’s Local 15 taught Simmons’ song to Highlander co-founder Zilphia Horton. Horton began to perform it at the school and taught it to Pete Seeger, who published it as “We Shall Overcome” in People’s Songs Bulletin. Introducing the song were the following words from Horton: “It was first sung in Charleston, SC….Its strong emotional appeal and simple dignity never fails to hit people. It sort of stops them cold silent.”
Seeger, director of the organization that published People’s Songs Bulletin, added the song to his performance catalog and performed it throughout his career. Joe Glazer, a folksinger known as “Labor’s Troubadour,” recorded it in 1950 and Guy Carawan taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, thereby introducing it to the Civil Rights Movement.
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