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Greenville News-Piedmont Building

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Greenville News Building
1966–1968, J. E. Sirrine, Architects and Engineers; 1997–2001 addition, Craig, Gaulden and Davis. 305 S. Main St.

A Brutalist office block on a prominent corner in downtown Greenville formed the frontispiece to South Carolina’s architecturally most distinguished facility devoted to communication. The larger built complex to which it belonged resulted from a combination of remodeling and new construction undertaken by the venerable local firm of J. E. Sirrine.

J. E. Sirrine had originally distinguished itself by producing mills and factories. The firm later diversified into one offering both architectural and engineering services. In the latter half of the twentieth century, J. E. Sirrine completed many significant commercial and institutional buildings throughout South Carolina as well as in other states. Like the firm, the Greenville News and the Greenville Piedmont both had local, nineteenth-century roots. In the 1960s their combined and growing operations were producing the newspapers of record for South Carolina’s Piedmont region. The publishers consequently required a building whose exterior would reproduce in architectural form their aim to excel in the kind of journalism that counts as a public service. In addition to an iconic office block, however, they also required an economical yet efficient printing plant. J. E. Sirrine satisfied both requirements by judiciously integrating new construction with the renovation of the old Greenville Piedmont Building (1914) as well as of a more recent facility (1964) on the site.

J. E. Sirrine’s solution positioned the office block on the site’s highest point (the actual corner of Main and Broad streets), from which the land slopes away in a southeasterly direction. The design placed a new, three-story office block in front of the appreciably lower remodeled printing plant behind it. Beneath the office block was a parking garage that appeared as a plinth opening out into a small plaza continuous with the sidewalk on the East Broad Street side. Since the office block fronted a descending stretch of Main Street, from the west it gained something of the appearance of a high-rise. In respect of its apparent height, the Greenville News-Piedmont Building complemented the nearly contemporary Daniel Building. In fact, the two anchored the southern and northern ends of Main Street. But they also shared a conceptual kinship arising from a shared economic purpose: to spark a renaissance in Greenville’s declining downtown.

From its main approach along Main Street, the Greenville News-Piedmont Building was less symmetrical than it first appeared. The office block was not centered against its backdrop, the printing plant, which was a closed box sheathed in travertine slabs. The block had its entrance within the third bay (counting from East Broad), since its width of six bays did not permit a strictly centralized portal. The vertical plane of the plinth along Main Street was asymmetrically interrupted by a flight of steps leading to the pedestrian entrance and again by an opening that permitted cars to enter the garage. Nevertheless the structure’s affected symmetry roots it in South Carolina’s enduring tradition of classicism, to which the state’s progressive businessmen had to pay homage if they were to legitimize the architectural innovations (such as the use of precast concrete) they believed necessary for the paper’s, and thus the state’s, future prosperity.

The office block was a volume sheathed in openwork that consisted of a grid of precast concrete panels with very deep reveals, hung on a concrete frame designed to permit the entire superstructure to be treated inside as easily reconfigurable loft space. The panels serve both as enclosures for the upper floors and as window frames. The facade of the main floor is an entirely glazed wall set back behind widely spaced and gracefully proportioned piers, making the great mass of the superstructure seem to float in defiance of gravity. As a result, the office block afforded such great visual excitement that the printing plant behind it receded into insignificance, thus rendering the asymmetrical relationship of the two parts difficult to assess visually from any vantage point.

The structural piers at plaza level, which were covered in travertine to match both the original pavement of the plaza as well as the revetment of the printing plant, evidently were shaped in imitation of those recently used on the Banque Lambert in Brussels (1956–1964, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill). As features of the Greenville News-Piedmont Building, they endowed central Greenville with the glamour of an internationally acclaimed design. Their appearance also disclosed something of the working methods of South Carolina’s twentieth-century architects, who, like many of their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors, depended on ideas brought into the state from design centers elsewhere (most often via publications) and who saw their task as principally one of synthesis.

The rough texture of the precast panels, which recall Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist concrete work, contrasts with the relative smoothness of travertine elements and also with the absolute smoothness of the glass. The Greenville-News Piedmont Building and the Daniel Building evidence the favor that Brutalism enjoyed among upstate South Carolina’s optimistic business elite in the 1960s. Brutalism’s commitment to undisguised expression of materials and structural systems paralleled that elite’s own commitment to fair dealing in business or—in the case of Greenville’s major news organization—to honesty in reporting. Thus not only did the two Brutalist monuments at either end of Greenville’s Main Street embody the initial investments that would spark the revival of the city’s downtown in the 1980s, but they also symbolized the conditions under which those investments were made. Brutalism, through its frank use of manmade concrete elements to express progressivism, along with natural stone elements to guarantee prestige, made the material investments economical at the same time it made the formal symbolism potent.

In 2006 a bronze statue of Nathanael Greene, by sculptors T. J. Dixon and James Nelson, was installed on the plaza of the Greenville News-Piedmont Building. A very large, new distribution plant (2001) was added to the south side of the building just before advances in digital technology and corporate management began to profoundly transform the newspaper business worldwide. The Greenville News-Piedmont organization, true to the trends of its industry, would soon move its printing operation offsite and reduce its staffing levels as advertising expenditures shifted to non-print media. In 2012, the entire organization offered its headquarters for sale. A staged demolition began in 2016 as part of a proposal to redevelop the site along lines apparently inspired by New Urbanism. A luxury hotel, complete with restaurants and event space, is scheduled for completion in 2020.

References

Connor, Eric. “The News Writes New Chapter in Greenville.” Greenville News, May 22, 2016.

Hughes, Dick. “Greenville News Building for Sale on Main Street.” Greenville Journal14, no. 29 (July 20, 2012): 29.

McClure, Harlan, and Vernon Hodges. South Carolina Architecture: 1670–1970. Columbia: South Carolina Tricentennial Commission, 1970.

Nolan, John M. A Guide to Historic Greenville, South Carolina. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2008.

Stokes, J. Hunter. “Roger Peace Extolled As $4 Million Building Dedicated.” Greenville News, April 1, 1969.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Alfred Willis
Coordinator: 
Alfred Willis
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Citation

Alfred Willis, "Greenville News-Piedmont Building", [Greenville, South Carolina], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/SC-01-045-0061.

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