A new plan for the Old City Jail

An illustration of what the Old City Jail will look like after its renovation is complete | Image provided by liollio architecture

If you’ve ever been inside the Old City Jail, chances are, you were taking a ghost tour. Maybe you’re familiar with some of the troubling tales of the building’s past – like the (mostly fictional) accounts of alleged serial killers Lavinia + John Fisherwho were indeed imprisoned there for a time, but may not have actually killed a single person.

But here’s a horror story that’s 100% true: after generations of poor upkeep, the building is on the brink of collapse. Built in 1802, the Old City Jail is the only property of its size + age in the heart of Charleston that has never been completely restored.


1802: The Old City Jail is constructed at 21 Magazine Street.
1820s: Charleston architected Robert Mills designs the addition of a four-story wing for solitary confinement.
1855: Mills’ wing is demolished and replaced by a new, four-story octagonal wing.
1886: An earthquake destroys the fourth floor of the octagonal wing.
1939: Charleston County sells the building to the Charleston Housing Authority. The Preservation Society successfully protests the building’s demolition.
1970s: The building’s interior is partially renovated for use as a museum.
2000s: After sitting mostly vacant during the latter 20th century, the American College of the Building Arts moves in.
Today: The building is used for ghost tours, but is otherwise vacant.

After sitting for decades in an increasing state of disrepair, the building’s current owners (local development firm Landmark Enterprises) now have a plan to give the structure the TLC it so badly needs. 

With help from liollio architecture a local firm with experience in preservation (including the Old Exchange Building + Fort Sumter) – developers plan to convert the 217-year-old jail into a modern office building. The tricky part: breathing new life into the dilapidated building without destroying the parts of it that make it historically significant.

The CHStoday team was recently invited along the Preservation Society’s Hard Hat Tour of the Old City Jail. Here’s what we learned about the massive undertaking – and what the building will look like once the work is complete.

An illustration showing what the Old City Jail will look like from the outside when renovations are complete | Image provided by liollio architecture


The project

Right now, there are huge support beams inside the building. That’s what’s keeping the building standing. Jay White, an architect at liollio that led our group on the hard hat tour, described the jail as being in “somewhat perilous condition.” 

A lot of the renourishment includes fixes to the problematic parts of the structure’s foundation. For instance, the steel bars in many of the jail’s windows are rusting – and as they rust, they expand, and that’s literally pushing the granite on the window sills out. The fix: crews will remove every single bar. 10-15% of the window sills will likely need to be replaced, and others will be repaired to prevent future rusting. The iron bars will be replaced in order to maintain the building’s historical significance. 

Another example: the brownstone, which adorns part of the building’s later additions, is eroding. Because the material is hard to come by, that stone will likely be replaced using compatible mortars. 

Oh, and that spotty stucco around the outside of the building? That wasn’t an intentional design – that’s partially due to patching, and partly due to loss of the stucco. White says that the stucco is so vulnerable every bad thunderstorm we get washes away more of it. 

Meanwhile, modern-day stucco is actually too strong to put on the walls. Most of the remaining stucco will have to be manually removed from the exterior masonry.

One big thing to note about the project: all of the additions to the building are not only intentionally designed to look different than the original structure, but they’re also totally reversible – meaning, if developers decide to return it back to its original look later, it won’t be a problem.


The result 

Once complete, the Old City Jail will have space to house nine tenants – with floor plans ranging from as large as 4,695 SF (on the ground floor) to 314 SF (on the second- and third-floor units)

An elevator will be installed, so you won’t have to lug your new office furniture up a spiral staircase

Originally, the jail had wood floor framing systems. Now, the floors are concrete – but that material is too rigid, which could lead to more cracking in the foundation. So, the design calls for a return to wood, which researchers believe actually matches the original floorplan. 

Though designers certainly don’t want office tenants to feel like prisoners, the design does want to keep the vibe of the structure somewhat old + course. The goal is to refurbish the building – not make people forget what it was actually used for in the first place. 


So, when can my business move in?

Those who are reading this and thinking “office goals,” may be wondering when the building will be ready. White tells us the design + permitting state has wrapped, and construction should begin soon. When it does, the project will take between 12-14 months to complete.

He says the building’s owners, Landmark Enterprises, would likely be the best guys to reach out if you’re a prospective tenant. 

Oh, and as for the building’s permanent tenants? We’re told ghost tours will likely still be offered within parts of the building. 👻