USC’s Black House: Home now gateway to inn

09/24/2010 12:00 AM

01/14/2011 5:36 PM

Mary Murray Black smiled wryly Thursday, reliving memories of her childhood, her wedding day and the battle in the 1970s to save her family’s regal Columbia home from USC’s wrecking ball.

“We had some mighty good times here,” the 87-year-old said, standing in the attic that covers the expansive, two-story house that now serves as the gateway to the Inn at USC, where visiting VIPs from the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to sex therapist Doctor Ruth have stayed.

As Black walked through the 8,000-square-foot house, she recounted her life of Southern privilege, noting the Honduran mahogany woodwork, fireplaces that grace most of the home’s 11 rooms and the butler button built into the dining room’s hardwood floor that once summoned the kitchen staff.

But mostly, the twinkle in her eyes came from memories of roller skating in on the concrete basement floor on rainy days, listening to Benny Goodman’s music on the Victrola or her daughter scrawling “I love you” in lipstick on a bathroom window sill.

The Italianate-style home at 1619 Pendleton St. where Black lived from 1930 until 1974 will celebrate its centennial next week with a reception open to the neighborhood, city and USC leaders, preservationists and the public.

The city of Columbia and USC evicted Black from the house in 1974 using eminent domain so the university could build a parking lot. But the house was never torn down, and preservationists successfully fought off USC several years ago when the university wanted to raze the home for a hotel. Now it is part of the hotel.

For Black, the bruising fight with the university over demolition in the neighborhood that has become known as University Hill is part of the past. “It just feels comfortable and good,” she said Thursday of how the developer built the 117-room hotel around her home, turned the house into the hotel’s entrance and kept much of the original look and design.

“I was married right in front of this fireplace,” she said in the parlor that now is an office for the reservation desk manager. “Well, not this fireplace. This is not very pretty” she said of the now-painted wooden mantel that once featured a marble front.

“Growing up here, I did not realize how grand a house it was,” she said.

Known as the Black House, the building and an adjacent structure that also was saved stand as a prime example of settling a restoration war between a growing university and a neighborhood determined to withstand further demolition, said John Stucker, former president of the University Hill Neighborhood Association that fought the school.

“It ended border skirmishes that had gone on 30, 40 years,” said Stucker, who continues to live in the neighborhood. “It was an absolute turning point. Not only did we get the inn, but we have two wonderful old buildings that have been restored.”

The second building, Kirkland Apartments, is nestled next to the Black House and is used by to house visitors to the National Advocacy Center across the street, where federal and state prosecutors from around the country come for training.

Mary Black remembers all too well how the university condemed her home and wanted to pay her $35,000 for it. She and her husband, George Black, sued. They settled for $163,000 and held a two-day neighborhood party in May 1974 when they were forced to move out to make way for a parking garage that ultimately was built a block away.

The Blacks called the farewell “One Last Fling” as a testiment to the family’s reputation for throwing parties. The invitation declared: “Please join us … before they pave the whole d----d thing!” About 400 people showed up, Black recalls.

Black’s family has connections to USC that date back 170 years. Her ancestors graduated from USC starting before the Civil War. This decade, some nieces and newphews attended the school.

For years, as USC did nothing with the property, it fell into disrepair.

By 2002, the Historic Columbia Foundation and City Council bared their teeth at the university, threatening to declare the house a landmark to block demolition.

The arrival of Andrew Sorensen as president of USC that year aided in reaching a compromise with the neighborhood, Stucker said. But it took mediation by Gov. Mark Sanford’s office to seal the deal.

Time has healed much of the hard feelings, including for Black.

“I think they’ve done a wonderful job. I’m so proud of it,” she said of the restoration.

To Black, the structure remains the home of her childhood and her life as a wife and mother.

She keeps photo albums of family events held there and about 30 newspaper clippings to chronicle the history of the house.

She remembers her first date with her future husband, a blind double date that resulted in her marrying friend Mary Jim Goodwin’s date (George Black) and Goodwin marrying Black’s date.

Then-Mary Murray Tompkins dated George Black for 1 1/2 years before he was shipped off to North Africa and Italy during World War II. “I hate to say how much I enjoyed the war years,” she said, grinning about many dates she had at Columbia’s USO and the Elks Club while George Black was away. They married when he returned.

The Historic Columbia Foundation estimates the house was built about 1910 by local businessman John Jefferson Cain. Black thinks it was about 1912, but the commemoration will happen next week regardless.

Cain lost the house to the bank. Black’s parents bought it in 1930 during the Depression. A wooden plank from the house, signed by Cain, sits in the hotel manager’s office.

Black visits the house regularly, for breakfast and other events. The extended family’s ties to the house remain strong. Three of the original rooms have been redesigned into the hotel’s VIP suites. Black’s sister-in-law’s grandchildren spent their June honeymoon in what once was the family’s master bedroom.

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