The new owners of the historic Big Apple – with its richness as once a place of worship and a renown stage that brought the races together for swing dancing – see their mission as transforming the building into a cauldron of dance, music and art.
“We’re going to keep the name,” said Richard Durlach, who along with his partner, Breedlove, bought the building Aug. 7 for $225,000. “We’re not going to change the look of the place.
“We’re trying to preserve it for the future,” the Columbia partners in dance, business and life said in unison Thursday of the building that birthed the Big Apple dance craze of the 1930s and ’40s. “In the world of swing dancing, it is just an iconic place (known) all over the world,” added Breedlove.
Durlach, 68, is taking the lead on crafting what they hope will become an arts venue that not only caters to many kinds of dance events, but also art exhibits and concerts – from chamber to jazz, R&B, salsa and, of course, the big band sound of swing.
Durlach even hopes the Big Apple, at Hampton and Park streets in the Vista, will be a place where patrons who love both music and dance will gather at the same time.
Durlach and Breedlove, the stage name the 70-year-old prefers, foresee music lovers perched on the Big Apple’s balcony rhapsodized by their favorite tunes being able to peer down to the rhythmic movements of dancers below. Combining those two crowds in one venue is rare these days, they said.
The new owners have not set a firm opening date under their ownership. They want the transition to be seamless and soon. But the Big Apple will honor community and private events already booked through the Historic Columbia Foundation, which sold the building to them.
Historic Columbia director Robin Waites said her organization will continue to coordinate with Durlach and Breedlove as well as have a say-so over external changes to the building through an easement arrangement.
Historic Columbia bought the Big Apple in 1993 for $1 from the Columbia Development Corp., Waites said. The Development Corp., a quasi-public group that guides projects in the city center, paid to move the landmark one block in January 1984 to save it from demolition by the expansion of First Citizens Bank, said Fred Delk, director of the corporation.
Delk’s group also renovated the then-heavily aged building that had been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.
Waites said the board of Historic Columbia has been wanting to sell the Big Apple because it has been losing about $10,000 annually in utilities and upkeep expenses.
“We were particular about the buyer,” she said. Her organization, which manages other historic sites around the city, quietly circulated word about its wishes. Durlach and Breedlove made the only firm offer, Waites said.
“It was practically an instantaneous decision,” Durlach said, reciting he and his partner’s decades-long ties to the building where they have danced and hosted dance events.
The Big Apple, once one of Columbia’s premiere African-American nightclubs, drew its name from the swing dance that originated there during 1930s. Durlach and Breedlove helped Historic Columbia organize a 2003 event that attracted some of the original Big Apple dancers from as far away as New York City. Many were their 80s then and have since passed away.
Columbia’s Big Apple dance craze swept the nation. It achieved national popularity in the city whose nickname became synonymous with the dance after white University of South Carolina fraternity students, who watched the black dancers from the Big Apple’s balcony, introduced it on campus during spring 1937, according to a written account from Historic Columbia.
“It’s one of the few remaining places that people can identify with swing dancing,” Breedlove said.
The balcony was constructed when the building was an orthodox synagogue. Women could not worship with men on the main floor because they were viewed as distractions to the men, she said. The dome and the stain-glass windows that remain harken to the building’s religious past.
The intersection of blacks and whites in the same location adds a racial chord to the Big Apple’s lore. “There’s a real connection throughout the community,” Breedlove said.
“I can’t imagine either one of us selling it in our lifetimes,” Durlach said.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
History of the Big Apple building
The two-story frame structure in Columbia has religious and cultural roots that have reached well beyond the Capital City.
▪ The current building at Hampton and Park streets was built in 1915 as the House of Peace orthodox Jewish synagogue after a fire that year destroyed an earlier place of worship.
▪ Traveling salesman H. W. DesPortes bought it in 1936 with the condition that it never again be used as a house of worship.
▪ Elliott Wright and “Fat” Sam opened the Big Apple Night Club 1 in Columbia that same year. A dance that the city’s young African-Amercians originated – which combined the Charleston, square dancing, shufflin’, shag and other dances – would become know by the club’s name.
▪ The club closed in 1938 when it was sold. Its uses until 1946 are unclear. But for the next 33 years it was occupied by several businesses.
▪ The National Register of Historic Places, on Aug. 28, 1979, lists the building for its local significance.
▪ The Big Apple is moved one block in 1984 from its site at 1319 Park St. to its current location at Park and Hampton streets.
▪ Historic Columbia buys the Big Apple in 1993 for $1 from the Columbia Development Corp. It was one of the earliest projects by the corporation created to guide development in the city center.
▪ Partners Richard Durlach and Breedlove buy the building on Aug. 7, 2015, with the intent to convert it into an arts venue with a dance and music emphasis.
Compiled by Clif LeBlanc from newspaper accounts and the Historic Columbia Foundation.