Beginning in 1828, the S.C. State Hospital campus on Bull Street in Columbia was not just a cutting-edge facility for treating the mentally ill, but a city within a city. Patients tended the landscape, produced their own electric power, grew their own food and even manufactured their own mattresses.
More the two dozen buildings dedicated to these everyday functions, as well as treating and housing patients, sprang up over the 181-acre campus through its nearly two centuries of existence. And with the sprawling campus set for redevelopment possibly beginning next year, a group of University of South Carolina students recently completed a study of some of those historic and basic functions they represented in that unique community.
The studies by the 12 students, along with other work by previous historians, likely will serve as a baseline for an upcoming debate on which buildings will be saved, which will be sacrificed, and how the site will be interpreted as it starts to develop into a different kind of city within a city – with stores, homes and offices. The property represents a rare opportunity to develop a significant tract of land in a big downtown area.
“You can’t just talk about one building, you have to talk about it all together,” said Lydia Brandt, an assistant professor of art and an architectural historian who conducted the USC class. “I hope it will prompt a more thoughtful kind of discussion of how and why the buildings and landscape should be preserved.”
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In June 2011, the S.C. Department of Mental Health agreed to sell 165 acres of the 181-acre tract to Greenville’s Hughes Development Corp. for $15 million. It was considered one of the most significant and anticipated land deals in city history because of the tract’s size, its location in center of the city, its history and its notoriety statewide as a mental hospital.
Developer Bob Hughes will serve as "master developer," selling parcels of property to other developers (or developing them himself) and paying the mental health department the $15 million in installments. Building out the site fully could take 20 years, Hughes has said.
Many of the structures on the campus likely will come down to make way for new development, both the developer and preservationists agree. But there likely will be tough negotiations in the future as the two sides come to agreement on what will stay and what will go.
The Hughes Development team, through the mental health department, allowed the students access to the grounds for their study. “They were glad to do it,” Hughes spokesman Bob McAlister said.
The developers said that while they haven’t seen the final product, they commended the students for their interest in mental health, the city’s future and their understanding of how Bull Street will play an important role in that future.
“Mr. Hughes and his team have publicly stated their intentions to honor the historic nature of the site in every decision they make,” McAlister said in an email Friday, “and preservation of the most historic buildings are contemplated.”
He added that “it is too early to say” how that preservation will manifest itself or what kind of historic designations will be used to interpret the site.
The students, all either art history undergraduates or public history graduate students, presented their finding in a two-day symposium earlier this month. Brandt plans to put their presentations online soon, and all documentation was turned over to the S.C. Department of History and Archives.
The first day of the seminar examined such topics as “A History of the Burial Grounds” at the hospital, by Tim Hyder, a master’s degree candidate in public history, and “The History of Modernity, Electricity and Independence” at the hospital, by master’s degree candidate Kim Campbell.
Day two focused on specific buildings, such as the Ensor research building by art history undergrad Kristin Steele, and the Chapel of Hope, which was built in the 1960s from bricks collected when an exterior wall was torn down, by art history undergrad Emily Hazelwood.
“The neat thing is how engaged they have become on the future of the site not only as students, but as citizens,” said Robin Waites, executive director of the Historic Columbia Foundation, who sat in on day one of the seminar. “It is a great opportunity for them to get into the trenches.”
Elizabeth Fagan, a history undergrad from Danvers, Mass., who researched the Parker Annex, an overflow housing facility for African-American males, said she liked the freedom she was given to study the building.
“I loved it – just the hands-on experience, being able to go to archives alone and be independent,” she said.
The students also offered suggestions on how the individual buildings could be reused, or not. For instance, Kari Mikutaitis, a senior in art history, advocated tearing down her building – the four prisonlike structures in the back of the campus once used to house the criminally insane.
“They are in really bad condition,” she said. “They are a danger to everyone involved and not really useful.”
The original contract Hughes had to buy the property expires on Monday, but it since has been extended. A committee of city officials and Hughes appointees will guide developers as they build on the property, according to an agreement that set zoning for different parts of the property.
The committee allows Hughes to forgo having to appear before the planning commission or other city boards for minor changes, thus speeding up the process. However, City Council still will make decisions on major changes such as the demolition of historic buildings, the uprooting of significant trees or the construction of a baseball park, which has been proposed.
Hughes has made no promises to save any buildings. But he has said he is interested in preserving the Babcock Building, with its distinctive red cupola, perhaps converting it into a hotel and using it as a backdrop for a new minor league baseball stadium.
Presently, however, the developer is awaiting a decision by the city on how it can build up to $40 million worth of infrastructure – sewer and water, roads and curbs – after a special taxing district for North Columbia intended to fund the improvements was turned back by City Council.
The students said they hope that when construction does begin, the history of the campus is taken into account.
“I really hope there is more awareness,” said Mikutaitis, of Pennsylvania. “People don’t realize how much is back there to begin with and how much might be destroyed.”