The Dewberry’s Dreamy Debut

What do you do with a languishing, hurricane-bruised Mid-century modern federal building? In a skyscraper jungle like New York or a white-concrete capital such as Washington, the answer might be easy enough: just tear it down. But in Charleston, better known for pastel pink half-houses or grandly preserved Georgian-style mansions, the question becomes more provocative—especially when the building is one of the city’s few examples of 20th-century modern design, and when it happens to occupy one of the most coveted real estate lots around, overlooking downtown’s Marion Square. Thankfully for the former L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building, erected in 1964 but vacated in 1999 following damage from Hurricane Floyd, the appropriate answer was offered by the historically minded and Charleston-devoted developer John Dewberry, who stepped in almost 10 years ago to purchase it with an eye toward renovated preservation. The result is a superbly reimagined space for wholly new purposes: The Dewberry hotel, which has quickly become Charleston’s premiere luxury escape in the heart of the Holy City.

Last fall, following an eight-year renovation led by Mr. Dewberry in collaboration with, among others, Workstead Studio, Reggie Gibson, Cameron Schwabenton, and DesignWorks, The Dewberry opened to instantaneous acclaim. As soon as you arrive to check in, it’s easy to see why. The hotel is the result of Mr. Dewberry’s vision of “Southern Reimagined”: a striking juxtaposition of past and present that cleverly mixes materials from the Lowcountry with design elements that pay homage to the hotel’s Mid-century modern roots. Creamy marble floors are offset by warm mahogany walls, with period-perfect brass details everywhere, from the fixtures and lamps to the wall art and signage. Right off the bat, The Dewberry proves the art of Southern hospitality is alive and well. Today, that Southern style might come with an accent from yesteryear, but here you might find yourself—as I did—being escorted Don Draper–style to the bar at Henrietta’s, the in-house brasserie, where, sitting at a mahogany booth over lunchtime salmon sliders and a glass of white wine or two, you can tackle paperwork from the office back home feeling like you’ve just stepped on the set of Mad Men.

Henrietta’s, you’ll find throughout your stay, is a popular local spot for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Equal parts “Southern” and “brasserie,” you can satisfy just about any craving here, from cheddar biscuits and buckwheat crêpes to good old shrimp and grits, as well as the traditional brasserie itch (the steak-frites certainly doesn’t disappoint).

In a city so full of sightseeing and cultural offerings, from carriage tours on land to boat rides over to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, the rooms at The Dewberry might offer dangerously comfortable cover; once inside, you might never want to leave. Designed by StudioDewberry, led by John Dewberry, in collaboration with the Brooklyn-based interior firm Workstead, the rooms are done in warm neutrals with custom touches that go the extra mile to avoid any hint of a clichéd hotel cookie-cutter formula. Kudos for the custom mahogany furniture, perfectly scaled to space and a gentle nod to the Mid-century modern feel. The Stickley-crafted armoires are inlaid with hand-painted wallpaper by local artist Becca Barnet—whose botanical print for the rooms will seem familiar since it’s also on the back of your guest card. Many of the sumptuous bathrooms, wrapped in Vermont marble, offer spectacular views of steeples across the square. For hotel habitués, it’s the smallest yet most important of touches, like the Irish linen bedding and supremely plush slippers, that will really help you settle in for the night.

A good night’s sleep is a must to make the most of Charleston, a city known for its historic preservation and restoration. And a good way to start exploring is at the Nathaniel Russell House, one of many that can be explored in the city. For historic preservation, the Aiken-Rhett House offers a unique look into one of downtown’s only plantation-style homes. And the Heyward Washington House, another architectural gem, showcases the home where Washington stayed during his weeklong trip to Charleston in 1791. Much closer to the hotel, the Charleston Museum, the oldest in the country, is only a few blocks away, and houses a collection dating back to 1670. Famous King Street shopping is also only a block away, providing a perfect pathway down to the historic center of town, with the Historic City Market, the Old Slave Mart, and the Old Exchange Building. From there, the Art Gallery District, and its many picturesque streets, makes way toward The Battery, the landmark defensive seawall and promenade abutting the scenic Charleston Harbor. Plantations and historic homes further from the city itself are definitely worth the drive, whether it’s McLeod Plantation, Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation, Boone Hall Plantation, Angel Oak on John’s Island, or Drayton Hall—widely regarded as one of the most important estates in colonial America and the first fully executed example of Palladian architecture in the nation. Drayton exists in a rare state of preservation and should not be missed.

Don’t worry about packing too much into any one day, though, because more rewards await back home. Feel free to indulge at The Dewberry Spa, a luxurious sanctuary enveloped in scented cypress walls that were inspired by Mr. Dewberry’s own Charleston carriage house (the menu of restorative treatments was curated by renowned spa expert Lydia Mondavi). Or indulge by imbibing at the inviting lobby-level Living Room bar. More than just the hotel’s living room, the convivial space has become known around Charleston as “the city’s living room.” Outfitted with Mid-century furnishings, a curated reading library, and a stunning central brass bar, the Living Room is the perfect spot for morning coffee, afternoon cocktails, or an evening aperitif. Here, every detail—down to the wooden bowls hand-crafted by local artist Hugh Jeffers from the knots of a 150-year-old white oak tree that once stood nearby—echoes The Dewberry’s rich history. For this visitor, it was the details of the delectable deviled eggs and delicious Negroni that carried echoes of a return visit very soon.