Nestled among small homes where the street stalls at Olympia Park, the old union hall stands as a white tower of stone.
Step inside the stoic structure of concrete block, with brick buttresses at each corner, and natural light streams onto wooden floors from second-story windows. Outside, a crooked creek runs through the park.
It’s not hard to imagine mill workers gathering here 60 years ago, in the shadow of the textile mills, a hive of union activity in a right to work state.
But with the closing of the mills 15 years ago, the historic union hall has fallen on hard times.
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It is vacant. Soon, it will be boarded up, awaiting repairs. If required repairs aren’t made, it could face demolition.
Memories of life in the textile mills are fading. But Larry Gamble remembers when the union hall was an important part of life in Columbia’s Olympia and Granby mill villages.
He said his father, Shorty Gamble, was probably the last man around who’d been active in union organizing at the mills when he died in 2010. Shorty was a loom fixer and long-time shop steward for the Textile Workers Union of America.
Now 72, Larry Gamble said he accompanied his dad to union meetings that attracted maybe 35 or 40 people. He’d wait on the lawn while the grown-ups talked.
In the 1950s, he remembers being sent to pick up food waiting for the family down at the union hall during a strike that he said may have lasted a month.
Striking workers got groceries from the union in amounts based on family size, Gamble said. Grits, rice, dried beans and sidemeat. Meal and flour for baking bread. The week’s allotment of simple groceries kept food on the table.
The union also sponsored a cookout each Labor Day, when the mills closed for the holiday. And it negotiated a pension plan but didn’t get much in the way of concessions. “My mother gets a pension of $27 a month,” Gamble said, “and she spent 45 years in that mill.”
He was proud of his father, who lived to 94. “Everybody’s against the working man in South Carolina,” Gamble said. “My daddy was a good Christian man, and he believed in doing what was right.”
Gamble would have liked the union hall to become a community building once the mills closed.
But it went into private hands and, in 1998, was purchased for $75,000 by real estate investor Bobby Haynes.
Haynes, 66, said he bought the place on a whim because he liked the building. But he’s never quite figured out what to do with it. At one time, he considered renovating it for his home.
“A restaurant would be wonderful,” he said, adding that he’s shown it to a couple of out-of-town restaurateurs over the years.
For now, Haynes and his Columbia property manager, real estate agent Will Fowler, are getting bids to replace broken windows, fix the leaky roof and put in a heating system, as required by Richland County to make the building safe.
A housing inspector cited the property in November, after the last tenant moved out, giving the owner six months to fix up or demolish the building, said Donny Phipps, director of building codes and inspections. He noted the owner always could seek more time to get the work done.
The caretakers said they’re not giving up on the building, with its colorful history and evocative space of roughly 3,600 square feet. Tax records say the building was constructed in 1944.
Haynes said he’s “receptive” to ideas for its re-use.
And it’s the kind of building that gives creative people ideas.
Residential real estate agent Bunni Crawford is among the building’s admirers.
“I love it. It’s unique,” she said. “I’d show it to professors, art dealers, artists for studios.”
In fact, not long after Haynes bought the building, he rented it to artist Deanna Kuhlman and a friend for a studio.
The two recruited another friend and did the renovations themselves. “I did it really raw,” Kuhlman said, “because I didn’t have the money to refine it, and it was almost a monastery atmosphere.”
She called it The Monument 119, a reference to its address, 119 S. Parker St.
Folks from the neighborhood rallied around, offering to loan tools or haul off trash, she said.
“They were so gracious and glad the building was coming alive,” said Kuhlman, 48, who lives on Lake Murray.
She had an exhibition there in 2002 with Marcelo Novo that packed the place; just as many people came to see the building as their artwork, which Kuhlman said pleased her.
“While I was there working, I would get so many people stopping to say, ‘I want to live in this building. What do I need to do?’ ‘I want to own this.’ ‘I want to buy it.’”
But she moved out after three years, no longer able to afford the space.
Fowler said the property was used for a short time as a practice hall for a band and, later, as a family home.
Neighborhood leader Vi Hendley lives on Alabama Street, facing the union hall.
Over the years, she and her husband have imagined the building’s potential. A coffeeshop, maybe, or small place for lunch.
“Clearly, we bought on this street because we liked the area,” Hendley said, “and the union hall was a big part of it.”