The view from the top

msexton@thestate.comNovember 1, 2009 

The Capstone building offers uniquely panoramic views of Columbia - and now, its renovated Top of Carolina restaurant is spectacular, too

Sitting atop the 18-story Capstone House dormitory on the University of South Carolina campus, the city fans out below.

There's the State House, downtown buildings, Five Points, Williams-Brice Stadium and acres and acres of treetops.

It's a view like none other in Columbia.

And it changes every second.

In an hour, you can see it all -as the 123 seats in the revolving Top of Carolina restaurant ease their way slowly but constantly around a full 360 degrees.

After being closed a year and a half for renovations, the restaurant is open to the public again for Sunday brunch and Friday barbecue lunch buffet. Top of Carolina was gutted and updated, although the original revolving mechanism from the 1964-65 New York World's Fair - used to make the seating ring move - is still in operation.

With the facelift, the look inside rivals the panoramic view of the city.

"(Capstone) is such an iconic building. It's not part of the historic campus, so we wanted the inside to reflect the architectural style of the exterior," said Helen Zeigler, USC's associate vice president for business affairs.

As the university searched for a style that would fit with the building, it settled on something of an art deco look -characterized by the use of materials such as metallics, lacquer and inlaid wood. The sunburst motifs in the railing and the stationary buffet tables holding the brunch desserts are typical of the style, as are the drum-shaped overhead light fixtures and tile floors with inlaid glass.

"We wanted something that would bring a unique decor to a unique venue," she said.

THE HISTORY

Capstone House was originally envisioned in the 1960s as a 13-story, Z-shape residence hall. It was to have an open roof garden along with a snack bar for students.

University officials wondered if it would be possible to install a revolving restaurant on the roof. The architects believed it would work better atop a taller, more vertical building. So Capstone was redesigned as a 203-foot-tall, 18-story building.

The rotating platform and mechanism was acquired from an exhibit at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair and given to USC by the late Robert G. Wilson of Greenville. (Wilson founded Barbecue King Inc., in the early 1950s, and his innovation of the chicken roasting machine has become common in American supermarkets).

The Capstone platform, which has an outside diameter of 91 feet, is driven by a three-quarter horsepower motor. It makes one complete revolution every 59 minutes.

Capstone House was completed in 1967 and opened its doors as a dorm in 1968. USC is believed to be the only university in the country with a rotating restaurant.

THE RENOVATION

The university has been methodically renovating its on-campus dining locations for several years. Top of Carolina is one of the last ones to get a facelift. Little work had been done at the restaurant since it had originally opened.

USC initially faced two challenges with the renovation.

First, the building was constructed before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, and the layout of the restaurant made it difficult to navigate for people using wheelchairs. As part of the renovation a lift was built, making it handicapped accessible.

The second issue concerned the walls of nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that circle the restaurant.

"All that glass is the beauty of the building, but it also can cause problems," said Rick Gant, director of catering for Sodexo Carolina Catering, which oversees the Top of Carolina along with other USC venues.

In some areas of the restaurant at certain times of the day, the glaring sun made for an uncomfortable experience. The solution is a system of shades that can be adjusted by quadrants, so the amount of sunshine can be regulated in varying parts of the room.

"That's going to enable the entire space to be comfortable when you're using (the restaurant) in the daytime," Zeigler said.

The other challenge was unforeseen: Once the renovation began, asbestos was discovered. The removal was time-consuming and expensive.

TODAY

The Top of Carolina opened for Sunday brunch early last month. Starting Friday, the Top of Carolina will be open for a barbecue buffet lunch.

"There was a time in Columbia when it was a tradition for offices to go out for barbecue on Fridays," Zeigler said. "We thought that might be another revival of sorts."

Last Sunday, diners headed for made made-to-order omelet and Belgian waffle stations, along with serving dishes filled with bacon, sausage, beef, seafood, salads, fruits and vegetables. A built-in sideboard held desserts, including banana pudding and cheesecakes.

Scott and Lori Nelson of Columbia, along with their three children, Tucker, 11, Carrie 13 and Joe, 15, were enjoying brunch - and the view.

"There aren't many places in Columbia you can get this view," Lori Nelson said.

"None," her husband said.

"And the food is really, really good," she said.

Nearby, Ruth and Terry Boling were enjoying brunch with friends. A retired nurse from the VA hospital, Ruth Boling said she had missed the Top of Carolina while it was under renovation.

"We used to come any time we had company in town from Indiana," she said. And the renovations? "I love it," she said.

ABOUT TOP OF CAROLINA

Where: Top of the Capstone residence hall, 902 Barnwell St., USC campus

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday for brunch. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday for barbecue buffet.

Cost: Brunch is $21 for adults, $10 for children 12 and under. Includes buffet, beverage and taxes. Friday barbecue is $9.86 plus tax.

On the menu: The brunch is a buffet with items including carving station, beef, chicken, seafood, potatoes, rice, vegetables, made-to-order omelets and Belgian waffles with toppings, signature salads, assorted desserts.

The Friday barbecue buffet features barbecue pork, pulled barbecue chicken, cole slaw, seasonal salads, green beans, rice, macaroni and cheese, rolls, banana pudding, iced tea and coffee.

Reservations: Recommended, call (803) 777-7919, (803) 777-0848

Also: The restaurant is available for private party rental.

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