Historic preservation groups fear for the future of Kensington Mansion, the grand 19th-century home that had been open to tours for decades in southeastern Richland County.
International Paper is dissolving its partnership with the group that led tours at the mansion, which is on property owned by the company next to its plant on the Wateree River.
The mansion has been closed since suffering roof damage in the February 2014 ice storm. That damage hasn’t been fully repaired. The Scarborough-Hamer Foundation, which in addition to leading tours of the home furnished it with period items, now is seeking homes for thousands of items ranging from period furniture to tableware to clocks.
Members of the foundation board met with representatives of International Paper on Feb. 25 and were told the contract between the two was being dissolved, said Rickie Good, director of the foundation.
“Given the current state of the mansion, International Paper felt this step necessary to ensure the collection does not sustain any damage,” Good said in an email to board members.
IP offered to assist the foundation with both the moving and the storage costs, Good said. Foundation members plan to seek homes for some of the items at a meeting of museum directors this week in Florence.
Of more concern to historic preservationists is the mansion. International Paper isn’t sure what it will do.
“We understand there are questions about the future of Kensington,” said company spokeswoman Kim Wirth. “This is a process we need to work through, and as a result a final decision has not been made. We are hopeful that process will be completed this year.”
Built in 1854, the mansion was the centerpiece of the Singleton family’s Headquarters Plantation. Matthew Richard Singleton, who had spent time in Europe, asked architects Edward Jones and Francis Lee to design a home in the Italianate Revival style.
The symmetrical 12,000-square-foot home features four large bedrooms or sitting rooms on the main floor radiating out from a square entry hall. Looking up in the hallway takes your breath away, from the ornate cast-iron railing to the skylight in the domed metal roof. The long dining room at the back of the first floor resembles a small ballroom with a domed ceiling.
The fine touches throughout — intricate designs in the molding, magnificent cornices, vaulted ceilings — hint at the Singletons’ wealth. The extended family owned several large plantations in the Midlands.
The property changed hands several times in the 1900s. The mansion was being used for storage of farm machinery when Union Camp, now International Paper, acquired the land for its paper mill in 1981.
The company spent nearly $1 million to renovate the mansion. It was opened for periodic tours in 1984, and the tours became more regular when the company partnered with the Scarborough-Hamer Foundation in 1996. Since then, the mansion has been a tourism stalwart in the area.
“It’s really important to the community,” said Lower Richland community leader Bernice Scott, a former member of Richland County Council.
“Why didn’t someone call the county or call the community together and say, ‘Look, y’all, we’ve got to raise some money to get it (the roof) fixed,’” Scott asked. “I’m just hoping we can pull everybody together and make it happen.”
Local residents donated family heirlooms to help furnish the mansion because they wanted the community to benefit from their preservation, Scott said.
She recalled going to a jazz concert at Kensington Mansion as part of a recent Swampfest. “The wind was blowing. They had homemade cakes, lemonade – things we do in the South – and it was really peaceful,” she said.
Robin Waites, director of the Historic Columbia Foundation, a countywide preservation group, said she’s concerned because of a lack of communication by International Paper. Over the summer, Waites said, she approached the people at Kensington Mansion to see if there was anything she could do to help.
“I just know the work hasn’t been done; the building is still closed,” she said. “This site can’t continue to deteriorate. It’s too important.
“The plasterwork on the inside of the mansion is magnificent. My concern is when you begin to get water damage in a building like that, with plaster work, you can pretty quickly lose those finishings.”
She said the house is a unique example of 1850s architecture and the property is part of a broader story about rural life in Richland County, both before and after the Civil War. A slave cabin survived on the property after transitioning to tenants’ housing.
Michael Bedenbaugh, director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, called the mansion “one of the most important sites in the state, and its maintenance for the public is of highest priority.”
Like Historic Columbia, the Palmetto Trust is more than willing to help International Paper in any way it can.
Scott said the company touted its plans to preserve the mansion when requesting tax breaks from Richland County years ago. The commitment to rehabilitate the mansion also was included in federal documents for the plant’s permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw water from the river.
On its website, the company makes note of its contributions to schools and non-profit service groups. “Another source of pride for International Paper is Kensington Mansion, ... an architectural and historical treasure, located on mill’s property,” the website states.
Waites said documents dating to the construction of the Eastover paper mill require the company to preserve the mansion.
Elizabeth Johnson is not so sure.
The S.C. Department of Archives and History, which consulted with Union Camp and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on an agreement to save the mansion, doesn’t have any records of a long-term commitment to preserve the property, said Johnson, deputy state historic preservation officer.
That’s frustrating to the advocates who’ve contacted her in recent months, Johnson said.
“So it appears the property was saved, it was repaired under this agreement, but I don’t know there was anything put into place that carried those commitments forward for any amount of time,” she said.