In the next few weeks, travelers along Calhoun Street will see something brand new and something really old. The two will work in concert as a functional exhibit of modern mobility and Charleston’s architectural permanence: bike lockers designed to emulate the Holy City in front of a mural reflecting more than a century of history at 85 Calhoun St.
Center director Michael Maher says the project came out of a practical need for a secure bike rack. Sitting in the office at 85 Calhoun, Maher points across the atrium to two bikes sitting in the building’s small gallery.
“The bikes in here are not props,” he says. “All four of us ride bikes, and we don’t know where to park them.”
The center paired with Clemson’s School of Architecture on a project to find a home for the bikes that would also put to use one of the old building’s bland side walls. For years it’s been home to the heating unit, unkempt hedges, and the occasional homeless person sleeping around the corner.
“It seems sort of forlorn,” Maher says.
Ten students began work on the project, first considering an intricate pulley system that would literally hang bikes on the two-story wall, then contemplating a bike rack in front with heavy greenery filling the wall behind it. They shifted gears after a discussion on the building itself.
“We gave them a sense of the history of the building, and they ran with it,” Maher says.
Prior to the 1960s, 85 Calhoun was just another building on a busy street. As an urban renewal project, the construction of the Gaillard Auditorium leveled three city blocks of buildings in the late ’60s. Three or four houses were relocated, but 85 Calhoun was the only one left standing at the site.
It’s not clear why. The building was a masonry structure, compared to the wooden buildings around it, but it wasn’t in good shape. During construction at the Gaillard and subsequent renovation at 85 Calhoun, an entire corner of the building fell in on itself.
The small building played a significant role in the auditorium’s design — the archway through the middle of 85 Calhoun lines up directly with the front door of the Gaillard. Once renovated, it served as the city’s visitor center until the new one was built on Meeting Street nearly a decade ago.
That’s not much to go on, but students worked with the Historic Charleston Foundation, a collaborator on the building’s preservation in the ’60s, as well as researching city and library records and old photographs to uncover the building’s past.
“A lot of the history is literally and figuratively painted over,” Maher says.
The solution is a mural that fills the entire wall, charting the building’s history. Dots show cracks in the wall from the 1886 earthquake. Hash marks outline a store and later a restaurant that stood next door. Circles will denote aesthetic earthquake bolts installed in 1973. There are also outlines of windows that have long since been plastered over and shading where the wall collapsed and brick was exposed during the Gaillard construction.
From a distance, passersby will be able to see dates in large type noting particular events. Upon closer inspection, text explains each aspect of the mural.
“We wanted the graphic to read in two different ways,” says undergrad Daniel Hutcherson.
The back of the bike rack will include pictures and details chronicling the complete story from the development of Ansonborough to present day.
“We’re creating a museum-quality experience,” Hutcherson says.
And the front of the bike rack may be just as impressive. The doors of nine covered lockers, designed to bring to mind Charleston shutters, will pull down as a ramp. Cyclists can roll their bike onto the door, lock it, and then close the door and lock it as well. The boxes will be for city employees’ bikes, but three exposed racks will sit beside the lockers for public use.
Maher said the concept could be fabricated elsewhere in the city to provide a more attractive, more secure option for bike owners.
The students will handle every aspect of the construction. The $10,000 cost will come from the center’s operations budget, as well as donated materials and contributions.
On the other side of the building, the students have proposed permanent braces for large signs that could note Gaillard or Design Center functions, like the Cooper River Bridge Run or Spoleto. The city’s Board of Architectural Review has delayed approval of that aspect until it gets assurances that the building won’t be damaged.