Café, housing planned for a historic house in downtown Columbia

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The WB Smith Whaley House, which for years served as Dunbar’s funeral home, on Gervais Street in Columbia, is set to be renovated and refurbished, with a cafe or cafe planned on the first floor and apartments on the upper level.

A building along Columbia’s Gervais Street, once a place that recognized the end of life, is now set to be reborn.

The WB Smith Whaley House, a historic structure that for years was the location of Dunbar’s Funeral Home, is set to be renovated and refurbished, with a cafe or cafe on the first floor and apartments on the upper floors. The house is located at 1527 Gervais St., directly across from the University of South Carolina Law School building.

Developer Tom Prioreschi, whose company Capitol Places has redeveloped a number of historic properties in downtown Columbia, particularly in the Main Street district, is part of the group working on the former funeral home property, which has been listed in the National Register of Historic Monuments. Places in 1979.

He said he was enthusiastic about the rue Gervais project.

“That’s pretty much all I’ve done since we’ve been in Colombia, (renovating) historic buildings,” Prioreschi told The State. “It suits our wheelhouse.”

Prioreschi said he has a handful of partners on the project, including attorneys Robert Lewis and Chris Rogers, as well as developer Will Brennan, who is an alderman for Columbia in District 3. Prioreschi said the redevelopment of the old funeral home will likely cost around $2 million. There would be six apartments on the upper floors, he said.

Prioreschi said the project would be funded by Ohio-based GBX Group, which specializes in projects involving historic buildings in urban areas.

News of the redevelopment of the Rue Gervais property was first reported by The Post and Courier.

According to the Department of State Archives and History, the house at 1527 rue Gervais was built in 1892 and 1893 by WB Smith Whaley. An entry in the National Registry description of the house stated that Whaley “specialized in the design, engineering and construction of cotton mills and the construction of residences” and was responsible for the design and construction of the Olympia, Granby and Richland cotton mills.

The structure on Gervais Street was a residence until it became the Dunbar Funeral Home in 1924.

It remained a funeral home for decades. Dunbar now has funeral homes on Devine Street, Woodrow Street and in northeast Columbia.

The Gervais Street House is an example of Queen Anne architecture and is instantly recognizable to people crossing Gervais Street due to its slender turret at the southeast corner of the building.

Prioreschi said a key part of the project will be exposing and renovating the old porch, which has long been closed. He said he envisions people being able to dine on the porch after the project is complete.

Brennan said he was intrigued by the prospects for redevelopment of the Whaley House.

“It kind of checks all the boxes for me,” Brennan told The State. “Historic and adaptive reuse, and it’s in much of the city.”

Brennan said retaining the historic look and feel of the house, while enhancing it with things like the aforementioned porch return, is “a must.”

“We hope it will be a wonderful dining experience out there on the porch, with the law school across the street and hotels nearby,” Brennan said. “I think it will be a good destination.”

Chris Trainor has worked for newspapers in South Carolina for more than 17 years, including previous stints at the (Greenwood) Index-Journal and the (Columbia) Free Times. He is the recipient of numerous awards from the South Carolina Press Association, including honors in column writing, government reporting, profile writing, food writing, election coverage, and more.

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