COLUMBIA, SC —
There was something about the picture of the building that clicked in Lindsay Smiths mind.
It was 1986, and Smith, a mild-mannered manager for the S.C. State Auditors Office, had just turned to page 26 in the book, Columbia: Portrait of a City. There, he saw a picture of a building, three stories tall, made of granite and brick and labeled Commercial Bank.
The book by Walter Edgar and Deb Woolley said the age of the building was a mystery, but noted that it might have burned in 1865 when Union Gen. William T. Shermans troops roared through Columbia during the Civil War.
It intrigued me, said Smith, now 72, of Irmo. I worked downtown and was absorbed in all the history of the State House and downtown. So I started doing some research.
That glance was the beginning of a 26-year journey for Smith a quest that recently concluded when his two and half decades of meticulous research was validated, seemingly proving that the building in the picture not only still exists at 1625 Main St., now home to Marks Menswear, but could be the oldest building on Main Street.
Hes got pretty convincing documentation, said John Sherrer, director of Cultural Assets at Historic Columbia, who toured the building with Smith and The State newspaper on Wednesday. Lindsay is a wonderful researcher and should be applauded for his tenacious efforts.
Its Feb. 17, 1865. War is raging. Gen. William T. Shermans troops have poured across a pontoon bridge over the Broad River near what is now River Drive and everything is conflagration.
Rebel troops led by Columbias Wade Hampton are torching anything of military value to the pursuing Yankees. Bales of cotton piled high in the citys streets are being set ablaze by flying embers from flintlock muskets and cannon. And all of those flames are being fanned by mischievous Union soldiers, escaped convicts and others bent on making South Carolina howl for being the first state to secede from the Union and ignite the Civil War.
Much of the downtown business district 458 buildings, including the 1600 block of Main Street is burned to the ground. The fire is an accident of war, according to Marion Lucas, a professor of history at Western Kentucky University and author of the book Sherman and the Burning of Columbia.
Sherman blamed Hampton. Hampton blamed Sherman. But a Columbia newspaper editor named Julian Selby was vitriolic in his denunciations of the Yankees in a new newspaper he started in 1865 called the Daily Phoenix.
Our city shall spring, from her ashes, and our Phoenix, we hope and trust, shall announce the glorious rising! Selby wrote in the first issue on March 21, 1865, just a month after the fire. God save the state!
Selby had scoured the state for paper, a press and printing supplies.
Thats quite a story in itself, Smith said. I dont know how he did it.
After the fire, Columbians, despite being left nearly destitute by the war, began building in earnest. Although Selby described the burnt ruins, the charred trees and the devastation left by the fire, he also noted a year later:
Let us be of good cheer. The good time is coming. The sound of hammer and trowel are heard from morning until night around us and we know what human energy and perseverance can accomplish in a short time. Public and private buildings are fast raising their walls on vacant lots, and it will not be many years before Columbia will be restored to more than her former beauty.
This is where Smith found his break in the case.
Plowing through the Daily Phoenix for news of these new construction projects, he found a news article from Jan. 18, 1866, announcing that Selby was erecting a building for his new newspaper. In an August 1866 article, the newspaper reported that an African-American worker had been overcome by heat while roofing the new building.
Then in December 1868, an advertisement in the Phoenix showed a lithograph of Selbys new building. It was a dead ringer for the Commercial Bank building in the photograph published in Columbia: Portrait of a City 118 years later.
Using Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, city directories and other resources, Smith pinned the Phoenix building as becoming a grocery store in 1878, then home for the Commercial Bank in 1883.
Even older buildings out there?
If the building was indeed built in 1866, then it would supersede by one or two years the Brennen Building, which is in the 1200 block of Main Street. That building, former home of the landmark Capitol Café, is being renovated by First Citizens Bank. It has long been considered Main Streets oldest building.
But while the Brennen Building and now the Phoenix Building have been exhaustively researched, other buildings along Main Street have not.
Who knows if another candidate for oldest building might pop up? Sherrer said.
Sherrer noted that the Sylvans Building in the 1500 block is a candidate for oldest building, and there are other buildings in the 1600 block that have not been officially or even unofficially documented. And with Main Street now in revival, with building after building being renovated, this is an excellent time to conduct those studies, Sherrer said.
With proper investigation, something else might edge (the Phoenix Building) out, he said.
In the meantime, Smith is happy to have contributed to the history of downtown through his 26 years of research.
That building is a testament to the strength of the people who survived the Civil War, he said. Its also a tribute to the architects and builders, many of whom were working on the State House. Its not like today. They were building to last.