This is my current desktop photo:

The image is taken from a sidewalk on Coffee Street, facing the Piazza de Bergamo (a place that honors sister city, Bergamo, Italy) and Main Street in my home town of Greenville, SC. The local headquarters of Bank of America is towering in the background. It is essentially the center of the mid-sized Southern city that has rediscovered its center-city district after a few decades of neglect and business & residential flight to the southern and eastern suburbs.

Early in my life, this was the scene of folks going to the major department stores and Main Street was a four lane road. Now it is a pedestrian center of nouveau restaurants, untypical retail stores like eclectic “Loose Lucy’s” to neo-mercantile “Mast General Store”. I want to focus on the building on the right, known as the Cauble building. It is a three story structure, Coffee Underground is reached by following the steps leading down on the outside.
Architecturally history can be fascinating to me, in the sense that tells the story of individuals and generational change. Old buildings, and specifically how they change in use over the years are like man-made tree rings that say a lot about how a city has grown. This building is no different. The local paper, The Greenville News, had a history article about the Cauble building in this week’s paper. Here are a few excerpts.

When Peter Cauble arrived in Greenville in 1815, he was planning to stay. … He set up his forge and blacksmith shop at the corner of Main and West Coffee streets. It was a perfect location, two blocks away from busy Court Square; at an important intersection for travelers from the north; just south of Sandy Flats, where horse trading and horse racing were monthly Sales Day activities.

The Cauble-Vickers Building was finished in 1905 and immediately became the home of the Bank of Commerce. Handsomely designed in an eclectic commercial style, its first floor walls were a foot thick, and terra cotta panels in the Della Robbia style were centered above the windows along both Main and Coffee Streets. An exterior stairway led to basement level shops on Coffee Street, and the second floor was fitted out for professional offices. The bank’s deeply recessed main entrance was set on a diagonal.

After World War I, the building became the first home of the Greenville Library. Opening in May 1921 with 500 volumes in the basement space, the library grew so rapidly that within a year it had a 4,000-volume collection and was circulating 40,000 books annually. It moved to more spacious quarters in 1925, when the building was valued at $600,000.

Eight years later (we’re up to 1986 in the story), when Courtney Shives purchased the building from the Caubles, … He stripped away the aluminum to uncover the remains of one of the finest facades in Greenville. He had details restored by master craftsmen. He uncovered the long-lost stairs and basement level, and created desirable apartments where dentists and attorneys had once had their offices.

It is an interesting history that marks the major points of center of town buildings in the South. Blacksmith shop founded by working-class entrepenuer, to his family’s later investment property, to building as functional art with a bank and library that give credibility to the center of town, to its now multi-use facility as a restaurant, Restaurante Bergamo in the former bank/first floor and the MapShop. New urban apartments on the second floor and a coffee shop, Coffee Underground, in the basement. In many ways, this plot of land carries with it the story of the commercial South.

I have spent many a social evening in the former library, now coffee shop. And before I read the article, I had no idea the basement had previously been the town’s first public library. Some of the first dates I went on with my now wife were at Coffee Underground, I have seen movies put on by the Caleb Group, in the coffee shop’s theatre in the back, browsed at the geographic oddities at the Map Shop and eventually plan to eat at the well-regarded Italian restaurant, Restaurante Bergamo, in the former bank lobby. The little street corner of a working-class entrepenuer has become quaint, yet at the same time buzzing with youthful activity and energy. I like that. At any rate, here on the left is the building from the front.

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