When Bob Guild moved to Pall Mall Street as a 22-year-old law student, the other side of his century-old duplex was being used by New York doctors screening textile-mill workers for brown lung disease.
Now 63 and one of South Carolina’s foremost environmental lawyers, Guild has lived on the one-block-long street in Columbia’s Granby neighborhood for 40 years, longer than anyone else in the current generation.
The street is within view of the spacious brick textile mills, now renovated into apartments, that employed thousands of people from 1897 to 1996.
As historic districts go, Granby is unconventional, a working-class neighborhood with a creative bent.
Guild’s neighbors include a yoga instructor, the owner of a vintage-clothing store, a computer programmer, a videographer and a couple of college baseball players.
“It’s really a Bohemian crowd of people, and that’s what I value,” said Guild, who has turned his community-activist energies to seeing that each of the 109 turn-of-the-century houses remaining in Granby are affordably preserved.
As change comes to the neighboring Granby and Olympia mill villages – the most recent a proposed Walmart on the nearby Capital City Stadium site – protecting their character is a concern.
The 11 homes along Pall Mall Street share a simple design. They have front porches a short stride from the street, shady yards with camellias popping open, no driveways or garages and cats on parade. There are quirky touches, too, like a 1950s TV set on the porch or the backbone of an animal nailed to a column.
The neighborhood is hemmed in by the Congaree River on one side and USC’s new baseball stadium on another. Every train that rumbles through town cuts through Granby, right behind Guild’s house on Pall Mall.
Millworkers no longer live along Pall Mall, but their spirit of community and cultural pride survives.
Guild was attracted to the house on Pall Mall, built in 1897, because its “every element ... had a sense that people had been born, lived and died here.”
His house, like many, had been preserved by neglect. It had symmetrical front doors, plaster walls, a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling of the front room and matching enclosures on the back added for utilitarian bathrooms.
In 1972, he paid $14,000 for the duplex that he and his wife, Nancy Barton, have not renovated so much as imprinted with art and color. Barton is the long-time director of the women’s shelter Sistercare.
Guild, who has litigated four cases against Walmart over environmental issues, said he’s part of an effort “to preserve our neighborhood’s long-term plan, since about 2000, to use Rocky Branch as a greenway that connects the river to King Park” in Five Points.
Rocky Branch runs alongside about five acres of city land Walmart developers want for a shopping center.
Natalie Mudd has lived on the other end of the street for 18 years.
She remembers her discovery of the single block of Pall Mall Street, which takes off at an unexpected angle by the railroad tracks.
It was 1985. She knows the year, because she remembers she’d been invited to an event, organized by Guild, marking the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
People were drawing on the street in chalk, creating art to represent the ashes of people incinerated by the bombs.
“As I was turning that corner, I just thought, ‘Wow! Where am I?’” said Mudd, 45, who owns Swift Water Beads & Jewelry Supply. Her 20-year-old daughter, Rhea, works in the business and lives on Pall Mall Street with her.
Mudd moved away from Columbia for a few years. When she returned, she found her way back to Pall Mall.
“That’s the first place I looked, because I loved the neighborhood,” she said. “I loved being near the river. I loved being so close to town.”
With the new year, Pall Mall Street – half owner-occupied, half rental – has some vacancies.
Mudd is among those recruiting replacements, looking for like-minded folks to fill the empty duplexes.
“We have four apartments for rent,” she said, thinking aloud. “Darn! Have I posted that on my Facebook page yet? I’ve got to do that.”
She describes her neighbors as friendly and creative but not intrusive. “You go out on your porch, and eventually everybody will get together on somebody’s porch.”
Jack Blakeney, who pays about $500 a month to rent a duplex in the middle of the block, said people used to tease him about living in the ghetto.
“Pall Mall Street is the first place I’ve lived since I was a kid where I knew – and actually liked – my neighbors,” said Blakeney, 42, information technology manager for a small Columbia firm.
“It’s a little hideaway,” he said. “We have a lot of fun folks down there. I’ve lived in a neighborhood of rentals before, and there just wasn’t that sense of community.”
The history of mill life has been passed down from previous owners, helping today’s residents imagine the steep wooden footbridge over the railroad tracks allowing workers to scurry home for lunch, the man who threw the morning newspaper to the engineer as the train passed, the pigs that rooted in a field at the end of the street. One was roasted each week for a communal meal.
Even now, the sturdy oaks join arms across the narrow lane.
The trains run close enough for their whistles to interrupt telephone conversations and TV shows.
And the real estate speculators drive through in their big sedans, not smiling or waving.
The neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, recognition that carries more status than protection. But Granby’s designation last year as a historic conservation district by the city of Columbia means exteriors cannot be changed without review.
Guild said one of his neighbors serves as the “matchmaker” between people interested in buying a home in Granby and knowledgeable contractors who can help restore them.
Now, Guild said, the task, on a house-by-house basis, is to find good owners for each of them.