We call the Romanesque Revival structure at the Northwest corner of Washington Park the Fireproof Building – even though it has actually caught fire.
The massive building with the Roman “tetra” style portico (that’s four columns) was designed by Charleston native Robert Mills as the winning entry for a city competition to create a non-combustible structure to house official documents. The area on which the Fireproof building was finished in 1827 had been home to a brick beef market, and had burned twice in 1796, and city officials simply left it open as a fire break. In 1801, an Adamesque style Federal bank was built on the site of the old beef market, but when it closed and was sold to Charleston, it became our City Hall in 1818, and the open area behind it was designated as City Hall Park.
An architectural competition ensued to build a structure on the park opposite the new City Hall that would be impervious to fire, and Mills’ design was the winner. He created a two-story building on a raised basement that would feature Neo-Classical features built of red sandstone, brick, iron and glass. As the Fireproof Building, the temple-like building famously survived through fire, bombardment, and earthquake as one of Charleston’s iconic structures, and became home to the South Carolina Historical Society after World War II.
Ironically, or woodenly, the building’s simple fire insurance policy was allowed to lapse, and sure enough, an office fire swept through its furnishings, paper and interior framing in 1955, scarring the old edifice.
The Fireproof Building survives today with name intact, but its legacy as a structure impervious to burning has certainly gone down in flames.