The Daily Gamecock

Newest Columbia coffee shop preserves historic Whaley House, aims to attract more students

<p>The W.B. Smith Whaley House sits on the corner of Gervais Street and Pickens Street in Downtown Columbia, South Carolina, on Aug. 24, 2023. The Whaley House is home to Knowledge Perk Coffee Company’s newest location.</p>
The W.B. Smith Whaley House sits on the corner of Gervais Street and Pickens Street in Downtown Columbia, South Carolina, on Aug. 24, 2023. The Whaley House is home to Knowledge Perk Coffee Company’s newest location.

Columbia boasts a variety of coffee shops for college students to sip on their favorite drinks while studying, but this past spring, a unique addition to the local coffee market came with more than just a few beans.

In April, Knowledge Perk Coffee Company opened its fifth location in the W. B. Smith Whaley House, a historic home across from the USC School of Law. 

The chain also has stores in Charlotte, Fort Mill, Rock Hill and McAdenville, with two more coming soon to Spartanburg and Myrtle Beach. The company did not originally intend to open a new location until a customer mentioned the Whaley House, according to CEO and Co-founder Ryan Sanderson.

Sanderson said he did not believe a Columbia location would be in the cards for their company until further down the road.

“I saw the building, the Whaley Home, and was like, 'Oh my God. That looks like it should be a Knowledge Perk,'” Sanderson said. 

However, the building's history dates all the way back to the 1800s when it was originally built for the prosperous Whaley family. The house mirrored many of the other Queen Anne style homes being built on Gervais Street at the time. 

In the 1920s, the Whaley House was repurposed into the Dunbar Funeral Home, which hosted many family funerals in the Columbia area. Eleanor Dreher Boyd, a customer of Knowledge Perk, said she grew up attending family funerals, such as her great-grandmother's, at the Dunbar Funeral Home. Boyd also went to school with the third generation of Dunbar children as well as attended dance classes taught by a descendent of the Whaley family.

Boyd said seeing Knowledge Perk's renovations on the house for the first time made her excited and "a little emotional." 

"The memories flooded back from when I was a teenager," Boyd said. "I was close with my great-grandmother, and so of course I was thinking of her, which was special.” 

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Tables stand in front of the main counter inside Knowledge Perk Coffee Company in Columbia, South Carolina, on Aug. 24, 2023. Knowledge Perk Coffee Company is located at 1527 Gervais St. inside the historic W.B. Smith Whaley House.

The new Knowledge Perk location retains much of the Whaley House's original architecture, Boyd said, including the ceilings, the glass on the door, the fireplace and the wrap-around porch — one of her favorite features.

“I love sitting on that porch, especially since it wraps around the corner," Boyd said. "I think it's just a beautiful place. You feel like you get energy from the city, but yet it feels kind of quaint and private.”

After the Whaley House was sold by the Dunbar Funeral Home in 2008, USC purchased the building for a period of time for the sake of preservation. The building was later bought by the South Carolina Historical Society, which maintained ownership of the building until it was purchased by Knowledge Perk Coffee Company. 

Riley Cook, a supervisor for Knowledge Perk's Columbia branch, said part of what makes Knowledge Perk special is its local feel, partially due to it being more of a chain in the Carolinas rather than a national corporate chain.

“Everything's very close and interpersonal the way that we do everything. Everything's exchanged between the stores," Cook said. "It feels very involved. It doesn't have a corporate feel to it." 

Sanderson said the main charm of Knowledge Perk is its coziness and history.

“(We’re) trying to offer something (with an) old-school, history feel to new, young college students that are coming through Columbia on the campus here at USC," Sanderson said. 

Sanderson said the coffee shop values supporting local sports teams — having affiliations with Appalachian State and Winthrop’s football teams, the PGA Tour and Charlotte Football Club — and is in the process of becoming a licensed coffee provider for USC.

“It would be really cool for those (on campus) to be able to come in and get a piece of their alma mater inside the store with our coffee,” Sanderson said. 

Knowledge Perk is located at 1527 Gervais St. and is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.


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