When students return to classes at the University of South Carolina in a few days, so will the pops of color of scarves and coats and thousands of feet crunching over fallen leaves on the Horseshoe. And in a couple months, flowers and flying discs will take their places on the expansive lawn that welcomes students and visitors to the heart of USC.
No matter the season, the Horseshoe is arguably the most popular place on the campus of South Carolina’s flagship university.
Even as USC continually expands westward toward the river, away from the traditional center of campus, the Horseshoe will never go out of style – not as long as long as Tom Knowles, Kevin Curtis and Charlie Ryan have anything to do with it.
“I think it’ll always be the center and heart of this place. I really do,” said Knowles, assistant director of the university’s landscaping and environmental services. “The historic or the older parts of campus kind of have just a soft place in people’s hearts.
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“I don’t think people are going to forget about the Horseshoe. No, I think it still remains the mother ship.”
Columbia’s Tree and Appearance Commission and Columbia Green recently recognized the Horseshoe and its caretakers for special achievement in contributing to the city’s appearance and quality of life. Knowles, arborist Curtis and horticulturalist Ryan are credited with being most responsible for making the Horseshoe look like the Horseshoe people come to see.
“It’s sort of the crown jewel of USC, sort of the iconic landmark that kind of represents who we are,” Knowles said. “It’s important for the university’s image. It’s important for recruiting. It’s important for everybody that lives here for a while and studies and learns and works here.
“We’re sort of in the marketing business because we’re part of creating an image and an atmosphere (so) that people want to come to school here.”
It takes a team of about 45 landscaping staff working year-round to maintain the more than 7,000 trees, tens of thousands of shrubs and some 80 acres of grass and lawns on USC’s campus – no easy job when planning their duties on a nearly 500-acre campus of some 31,000 students trekking to classes at all hours of the day.
During the university’s winter break, with students’ feet off their paths for a few weeks, USC’s groundsmen have more freedom to do their work, which at this time of year includes planting and transplanting, renovating flower beds, mulching, pruning and lots and lots of leaf removal.
For the spring, Ryan has planned for the campus a pastel array of blooming plants, a color palette which the university’s first lady, Patricia Moore-Pastides, prefers to some of the “hot colors” Ryan has played with around campus in the past, Ryan said. And as always, he said, he tries to stick to the first lady’s suggestion of no orange flowers on the Horseshoe.
USC’s visual appeal – and the work that goes into it – isn’t just contained to the Horseshoe, Ryan said.
“There’s not really an ugly place on campus,” Ryan said.
For arborist Curtis, one of his favorite spots on campus – and one of the most underrated for its beauty, he says – is Gibbes Green behind the Horseshoe.
“It’s got some of my favorite trees and a couple of the most gorgeous white oaks possibly in town, I would say,” Curtis said.
One of Knowles’ favorite features on campus was removed about two years ago – a 156-year-old live oak that was struck by lightning several years ago. Split down the center of its 52-inch diameter trunk, it survived for some time before being taken down from its home in front of the McKissick Museum on the Horseshoe after a large limb fell from it onto a sidewalk.
“Frankly, our No. 1 goal is to preserve what’s here, but also to provide a safe environment for students to live and learn in,” Knowles said. “You have to balance preservation with safety all the time.”
Even with safety as their top priority, Knowles and his crew can’t keep everyone from making some of their best, if not safest memories on the Horseshoe.
About five years ago, when Britt Hausmann was a sophomore nursing student at USC, she fell from a zip line some friends had strung between two trees at the top of the Horseshoe. Only recently did she have the metal rod removed from the leg she broke in the fall.
But she also remembers the Horseshoe fondly as the place where she would study and hang out with her friends, or duck into a garden off one of its paths or simply enjoy a walk through on her way to classes.
On New Year’s Eve, she brought her new husband, Simon Hausmann, and his brother, Marc Hausmann, to the Horseshoe, where the guys playfully climbed the drooping live oak at the top corner of the lawn, between Rutledge Chapel and the McKissick Museum.
“Massive,” “majestic” and “enchanting” are ways the trio described the place.
“For me, it has good memories. It’s a beautiful place,” Britt Hausmann said. “I think it's kind of a place in Columbia that people just hold dear to their hearts even if they don’t go (to school) here.”
Hausmann said it was, in part, the beauty of the Horseshoe and campus that drew her to USC as a college freshman.
That attraction is something USC’s landscapers understand more than anyone.
“Curb appeal is important,” Ryan said.