The Arcade Mall – Columbia’s first shopping center, built in 1912 – is about to get a face-lift.
Columbia developer and commercial real estate broker Ron Swinson, who purchased the Main Street fixture last May for an undisclosed price, will embark next month on renovation expected to cost at least $2 million.
Initially, that will include new electrical and plumbing systems, updated bathrooms, new lighting and a general cleanup of the floors and decorative terra cotta tiles that line the walls. Swinson also plans to replace the 1970s-era sliding glass storefronts that line the first floor of the L-shaped mall with double doors more closely resembling the originals.
“We want to make it more attractive, but not detract from the building’s historical features,” Swinson said.
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The developer works across the street from the Arcade, which is between Washington and Lady streets. He said he’s long been fascinated with it.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s not going to be a big money maker, but it will be a good asset for the future.”
Swinson said the new energy on Main Street fueled by 850 students now living at The Hub student housing project in the 21-story Palmetto Center made the timing right for his investment.
“That was key,” Swinson said. “And it’s also right in the heart of the central business district.”
‘Down Under’ no more
When the renovations are completed, the Arcade could become another anchor drawing people to a revitalized downtown, said Matt Kennell, chief executive officer of City Center Partnership, which encourages and guides investment in the central business district.
“It’s one of the most important development projects on Main Street in a long time,” he said. “It’s one of the most unique buildings in Columbia and a very, very exciting opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind destination.”
The building has 15,806 square feet of retail space and common areas on the first floor, 16,660 square feet of office space on the second floor and 17,266 square feet of space in the basement.
Future improvements include eliminating the drop ceilings in the second floor offices and renovating them as they are leased. The occupancy rate now is about 50 percent, said Brad Shell, Swinson’ son-in-law and a partner in the project.
In one of its most memorable uses, former owners built Columbia Down Under, which offered bars and restaurants in the basement from 1972 to 1974. It sought to mimic the success of Underground Atlanta, which was popular at the time.
Down Under, which operated as a series of private clubs to skirt restrictive liquor laws, became a destination for both Fort Jackson soldiers and University of South Carolina students. That was an often volatile combination at a time when the Vietnam War was winding down
Down Under did not last, but the facades and other features of the clubs are still there – including a bar shaped like a trolley, which was the centerpiece of the old Trolley Club. Those remnants will be removed to make way for new tenants, Swinson said.
“I would love to see some sort of hospitality down there,” he said. “Maybe a wine bar, or a small brewery.”
‘Let it be what it is’
The mall for decades had been owned by the family of former Columbia banker John Robison, now of Charlotte.
Located in the 1300 block of Main Street, the Arcade Mall was Columbia’s first indoor shopping center, according to a history of the building from Historic Columbia.
The Equitable Real Estate Co., a group of Columbia businessmen, constructed the building in 1912 at a reputed cost of $135,000 to $150,000, according to its application for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The mall’s location next to the Barringer Building, the Capital City’s first skyscraper, and its twin entrances along Main and Washington streets, ensured its tenants had lots of foot traffic.
The Arcade was built in the Italian Renaissance Revival style by New York architect James Brite. It was patterned after open-air malls in Italy. It had a roof, but with a large gap between the trussed roof and the mall’s top edge, offering protection from rain but also ample ventilation in the days before air conditioning
When large suburban shopping malls were built beginning in the 1970s, Main Street, and in turn the Arcade, became less of a destination for shoppers. Today the mall is home to salons, a deli, a shoe repair shop, a tailor, several art studios and offices.
Swinson said he has no plans to change tenants – “We’d like everyone to stay,” he said – but conceded that rents will likely rise to offset the costs of renovations.
Thomasena Reynolds, who operates His and Hers Tailoring in the Arcade, is no stranger to moving. Through her 43 years in business, she has leased space both inside the mall and at a couple of locations outside the mall in the same block.
Reynolds, who operates from three adjacent storefronts in the mall, said she doesn’t know what the future holds. But if she has to move again, she will.
“I’ll just let it be what it is,” she said. “I’m too old to worry about things like that.”
About the Arcade
Formal name: Equitable Real Estate Co. Arcade
Square footage: 50,625
Construction cost: $135,000 to $150,000
Architect: New York’s James Brite
Style: Italian Renaissance Revival
Significance: Columbia’s first shopping mall
Unique feature: L-shaped, with entrances off Main and Washington streets
Last renovated: 1970-1971
Source: National Register of Historic Places, Historic Columbia