The story goes like this: In February 1865, during the Civil War and Union occupation of Columbia, a convent school on Blanding Street burned to the ground.
Baptista Lynch, head of the convent, went to Gen. William T. Sherman and requested that her nuns and students be allowed to stay in the Hampton-Preston Mansion, the home of wealthy slave owners who fled the city before troops marched in. Sherman granted Lynch’s request. With the nuns living at the house, it was spared from the fire that consumed much of Columbia near the end of the war.
Built in 1818, the Hampton-Preston Mansion, owned by Richland County and overseen by Historic Columbia, celebrates its 200th birthday this year. For that anniversary, Historic Columbia renovated the structure and restored its grounds, seeking to present a more balanced historical narrative through the site.
These expanded interpretive elements of the rejuvenated historical property have been in the works for decades now. In 2003, a Historic Columbia exhibit focused on urban slavery at the Hampton-Preston Mansion.
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“We began having that conservations about telling those stories in a more balanced way,” says Robin Waites, executive director of Historic Columbia, “so that the white family doesn’t completely dominate that (story). They certainly wouldn’t have dominated in terms of the numbers of people and activity at the site. There were 68 enslaved people at the property and six to eight white people at its height.”
Delving into primary sources such as wills, letters and census records Historic Columbia has added a more complete story of the enslaved individuals who lived and worked at the site.
“Having that understanding (of enslaved people is) a shift we made early on with some exhibits that needed to incorporate that into the full story of the site,” Waites says.
Beyond new interpretive elements, the first bit of newness one would probably notice with the Hampton-Preston Mansion would be its exterior paint scheme. The home's new ochre yellow paint with brown trim is a palette more fitting with its antebellum origins than its previous gray and white color scheme.
It’s not the first change in the outside of the home. When first built, it had a brick facade. When the Preston family took it over in 1848, they added onto the home and changed the facade to stucco with the color scheme that’s now visible.
“We know (about the current colors) from descriptions but also from paint analysis,” Waites says. “So you’ve got both a scientific record and descriptions from historic records.”
The gardens at the site have also be restored to a their 19th-century state. In their day, the gardens were a destination for those passing through or living in Columbia. The wealth and travel experienced by the owners of the estate allowed them to create a menagerie of domestic and exotic plants, which led to the gardens' renown along the eastern seaboard.
Articles were written about the gardens from as far away as New York.
“The very interesting mix of plant material at the property, that would have made it an appealing property to people to see something that was different,” Waites says.
While the gardens and the new paint job might be most visible, it’s the effort to tell a fuller story of the enslaved individuals that fundamentally alters a visitor's experience to the Hampton-Preston Mansion & Gardens.
“What we’ve done is balance the story of everyone who was associated with the site,” Waites says. “We’re balancing race throughout the site. That’s the way that it was.
"It’s important to help everyone that visits the site see themselves in the property.”
If you go
The Hampton-Preston Reopening features house and garden tours, special presentations, children's games and crafts, 1910s calisthenics class, quadrille dance lessons, a plant sale, food trucks and more.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 12.
WHERE: Hampton-Preston Mansion & Gardens, 1615 Blanding St.
ADMISSION: Nonmembers, $8 for adults and $5 for youth; members, $5 for adults and $3 for youth.