The birth of the Vista: Columbia’s Vista turns 25

State museum, Finlay Park energized district

dhinshaw@thestate.comApril 25, 2013 

— The change has been dramatic and complete, making it difficult to recall the decrepit Vista of 25 years ago.

A warehouse where Confederate money was printed during the Civil War was useless and crumbling. Now, it’s recast as a Publix grocery store, spurring construction of hundreds of apartments and condominiums around it.

What was a block of scrub brush behind the main post office is now a park where summer concerts draw people to a communal lawn.

In 1988, several key events helped integrate the Vista into the rest of the city while bringing the area its own identity. The S.C. State Museum opened that year, resurrecting a riverfront textile mill from its grimy past to a place of beauty. Work began in earnest on that park behind the post office. And a deal was struck to move the Lincoln Street train tracks that separated the Vista from downtown.

The late Mayor Kirk Finlay is credited with seeing the potential for all of this – what he called the Congaree Vista, a view sweeping along a landscaped Gervais Street to the bridge over merging rivers.

By the time Finlay left office in 1986, the City Council had installed a tax district generating more than $60 million for public projects over 20 years. The council embarked on its first street beautification project, then imposed a policy of protecting historic buildings. It all drew protests.

“In so many instances, cities tore down what was special,” former City Councilman Luther Battiste said. “We had a chance to preserve what was right, and give it a new face and a new use.”

Carol Saunders was among the Vista’s entrepreneurial spirits. In 1984, she chose Gervais Street for her studio-made jewelry and art gallery, inspired by a summer’s tour through New England, where she found herself enamored of old buildings.

“The first 10 years, very little happened,” Saunders said.

Rush-hour traffic backed up in front of her shop, idling as trains rumbled along Lincoln Street.

In 1988, however, the city reached a deal with railroad companies to complete a relocation project it had started four years earlier to salvage the warehouse district. That’s the deal that moved the Amtrak station off Lincoln and opened Gervais, and the Vista, to the rest of the city.

The multimillion-dollar project concluded in 1991 with the demolition of a cool, elevated trestle that ran from the Vista to the Olympia mill village. Many still lament its loss.

In 1989, Saunders heard an artist was buying an old auto-parts store with second-story skylights. She settled there, and her artist-landlord impulsively opened a restaurant in back, keeping the name Motor Supply Co. along with its old neon sign.

The restaurant was an instant hit, helping set the tone for what is now an urbane nightlife district, with retail and an arts community contributing to its success.

1988: A pivotal year

The year 1988 helped chart a new course for the fledgling area now known as the Congaree Vista, which stretches from the State House to the Congaree River and from Blossom Street to Elmwood Avenue, with Gervais Street as its core.

That year:

The city reached a deal with railroad companies to remove trains and the Amtrak station on Lincoln Street, where the Blue Marlin restaurant is now. The tracks crossed Gervais Street, and long trains frequently cut off the Vista from the rest of the city.

• The State Museum opened in an old mill building near the river.

• Work began in earnest behind the city’s main post office to rebuild Sidney Park, which would be renamed Finlay Park after former mayor Kirk Finlay. He envisioned a thriving arts and antiques district in the underused warehouse district.

• The popular, experimental Trustus Theatre company moved to Lady Street.

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