'The Alamo' warehouse one of oldest commercial buildings

buildings downtown historic

On summer evenings, crowds surge into Fluor Stadium in the West End as traffic inches along refurbished and renamed "South Main Street." (To purists, it will always be Pendleton Street.) Perhaps a few wonder about the old brick building across the street.

They should. Constructed more than 125 years ago and thus one of the oldest commercial structures in Greenville, the sole building on the west side of the street between Wardlaw and Markley streets, demands a second look.

Its location -- edging railroad tracks first laid in the 1870s -- its 110-foot length, and its solid construction show that it was built as a warehouse. But above the stairs leading to the raised entrance on its main floor, an elaborately curved cornice (architectural historians might call it Flemish style) proclaims that this is no ordinary warehouse. Below, a separate lower level with a door on its north side and no interior staircase allows substantial room for storage or another business.

Its builder and longtime owner, William Wilkins (he of the "Villa" on Augusta Road), saw the need for storage facilities in the early 1880s. Cotton had become central to Greenville's agricultural economy in the decade following 1869, when the first bales were shipped from the Greenville & Columbia Railroad terminal on Augusta Road. At harvest time, bales were piled, almost randomly, in and around stores all over town. Crop prices, however, were low because all the cotton came on the market at the same time. Farmers needed a place to store it for later sale, and pedestrians protested the blockage of storefronts and the few available sidewalks.

Space was also needed to store the fertilizer essential to produce cotton in the thin soil of the Piedmont. The discovery of phosphate beds along the Ashley River soon after the Civil War gave impetus to upcountry cotton culture. Guano -- bird and bat droppings -- had long been harvested (so to speak) from atolls and islands around the Caribbean and near Peru. Both fertilizers were high in nitrogen, necessary for flourishing cotton, and unpleasantly aromatic. Warehouses, preferably odor-proof, were essential.

Wilkins' new building served both needs and was sturdily built and conveniently located as well. It stood opposite the Depot green, where cows grazed and pigs rutted contentedly. A wooden platform built onto its side, adjacent to the extension of C&G tracks to the Airline Railroad Station on West Washington Street, allowed stored cotton to be loaded directly onto freight cars.

He immediately leased the building to Ferguson and Miller, one of the city's most prominent grocery merchants. When they opened the new facility in 1882, they boasted that they could store a thousand bales of cotton on the first floor and 500 tones of guano in the lower level. Their advertisements emphasized their capacity and services in capital letters.

"We can accommodate all who wish to store their cotton in our LARGE WAREHOUSE on Pendleton Street. NO CHARGE for handling, weighing, sampling, and thrashing. All done inside the warehouse. Drive your cotton to the door and your trouble is over. Charge only 35 cts. PER BALE per month."

Even with all those extra services, as one of only two cotton warehouses in the West End, it must have been a cash cow.

But even the best bovines dry up. In 1891, both the Farmers' Alliance and Mills & McBrayer constructed huge warehouses at the intersection of Augusta and Pendleton streets, and while Ferguson & Miller ceased storing guano and expanded cotton storage to 2,000 bales, they couldn't compete with the new facilities. Furthermore, the price of cotton fell disastrously following the panic of 1893, and the company went out of business after a fire.

By 1902 a new textile hardware company, Carolina Supply, held a short-term lease, and in 1904 another new business, the Crescent Grocery Co., had established its wholesale grocery, office and warehouse there.

Supplying fresh fruits and produce, the "best known and advertised brands" like Lipton's teas and coffees, Butterlets candy and the finest cigars and tobacco to grocers around the city, Crescent employed four traveling salesmen and 12 warehouse assistants who, it boasted, filled every order promptly.

Signs painted on the brick below the cornice and on the side of the building advertise Coca-Cola (a nickel a drink -- the equivalent of more than a dollar today) and "smooth as velvet" Lazerac cigars (also for 5 cents) indicate that it knew its market -- Greenville had a new taste for luxuries. The company's name is still faintly visible today on the building's north side.

After Crescent left about 1915, 818 Pendleton St., its address before Greenville street numbering totally changed in 1925, was leased to first Cheero-Cola Bottling Co. (the West End thrived on soft drink manufacturing), Southern Textile Machinery and then Crane Plumbing.

The block between Wardlaw and Markley streets was busy. A couple of grocery stores, a cleaners, two lumber companies, the West End Cafe and two homes clustered on the west side of the street, while the huge Cotton Seed Oil Manufacturing Co., Eagle Milling and (yet again) a guano storehouse were on the east side.

Crane Plumbing stayed in the facility during the Great Depression, while three men lived in the lower level, and was followed during the war years by Kearny textile chemists.

By the 1960s, though, the West End was sliding into hard times, and many occupants were short term. Far more modern and convenient facilities were available elsewhere, and the building -- known locally as "the Alamo" because of its roofline and fortress-like construction -- was as often vacant as it was occupied. A construction company, a sheltered workshop, a recording studio and Rocks and Ropes, a rock wall-climbing business and gymnasium all tried -- unsuccessfully--to make a go of it.

But then, thanks to a major commitment by the city, the imagination and dollars of entrepreneurs, and a new interest in history and preservation, the West End and building came back. In 2005, ideal tenants -- Clark Patterson Lee, a large architectural, engineering and planning firm from New York -- established its Greenville office there. Eight architects and engineers moved into the main floor, reworked its grand space with few partitions, exposed its brick walls (leaving century-old graffiti), and created design space where cotton bales and boxed cigars once ruled.

The oldest and best preserved Greenville building not listed on the National Register, the Ferguson and Miller Warehouse (or, if you'd prefer, "The Alamo") is worth a long look -- and you need not wait until a Drive game to enjoy it.

Judith Bainbridge