Bringing splendor back to Columbia’s historic gardens

Historic Columbia is working to recreate its gardens from the mid- and late 1800s.
Historic Columbia is working to recreate its gardens from the mid- and late 1800s. Courtesy of Historic Columbia

As soon as you walk through the gates onto the grounds of the historic Hampton-Preston Mansion, it’s like stepping back in time.

You can almost envision wealthy ladies strolling about the grounds of the grand mansion that was maintained (or tended to) by enslaved workers in the early 1800s. Or hear the giggles of young women who strolled by the fountain while attending college there in the early 1900s.

In the 1830s, Mary Cantey Hampton and her daughter Caroline Hampton Preston transformed the four acres surrounding the antebellum home into regionally acclaimed gardens, boasting an assortment of native plants as well as flowers, plants and shrubs from all over the world.

“In the mid-19th century, this was one of the most prominent gardens in the South,” said Robin Waites, executive director of Historic Columbia.

But time diminished the splendor of those gardens, which eventually became a parking lot and a tumble of weeds.

Historic Columbia, with funding from the Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Foundation and support from AgFirst, the Palmetto Garden Club and volunteers, is transforming the gardens back to their past glory.

“We want to ensure the landscape around the building helps tell the story of the building itself,” Waites said.

The 12-year project, which started in 2006, includes period appropriate landscaping for the 14 acres surrounding six properties maintained by Historic Columbia. Work began on the Hampton-Preston gardens in 2012, and is scheduled to be completed in 2018.

The Hampton-Preston grounds project is different from other Historic Columbia properties, not just because of the four acres involved, but because there are letters, magazine articles, photographs and postcards available to show landscapers how the gardens looked in their heyday.

“Our goal is to re-create the 1840s-1860s gardens,” Waites said. “It was an eclectic and dynamic garden …with this property, we do have documents that allow us, with the greatest extent of certainty of all our sites, to recreate the gardens that were here.”

Because of the Hamptons’ wealth and tendency to exploit that status in the gardens, there will be an assortment of plants displayed.

“It’s not what you would call a native garden,” said Evan Clements, director of grounds for Historic Columbia. “This was a prestige garden. They were wealthy people.”

The project includes installing an urban arboretum densely populated with trees, re-establishing historic pathways and plant beds, introducing period-appropriate plant materials and garden structures, and repairing the perimeter wall.

Once complete, there will be 20,500 square feet of new pathways and 55,000 square feet of newly irrigated planting space. Historic Columbia has more than 50 trees that have or will be planted, including varieties ranging from dogwoods to a monkey puzzle tree.

The garden also includes a replica of the original fountain designed by Hiram Powers, and a gazebo in the Henry Michael Powell Memorial Children’s Garden. While the gazebo wasn’t part of the original landscape, the Hamptons did use many structures, such as arbors, on the grounds.

There also are some pre-existing, established live oaks and magnolias that were popular in the area at the time, but were not part of the Hamptons’ gardens. But most of the landscape will reflect the plush setting that invited visitors from throughout the South.

“We’re trying to mimic what was here before,” Clements said. “There will always be something interesting going on.”

One goal is to attract visitors, those who may come and enjoy lunch on the grounds, bring children to frolic along the paths in the Children’s Garden, or those who want to rent the grounds for special events. The gardens also can be used as an outdoor classroom.

“We love having people bring their chairs and have lunch out here,” Waites said. “We want to make it more accessible.”

When complete, the garden will have signs identifying plants and trees, with an app or tablet program for self-guided garden tours.

The Hampton-Preston Mansion will remain accessible and open during most of the rehabilitation. No work is taking place in the front portion of the gardens, which includes the welcome gate and entrance, Welcome Garden, Fountain Garden, Butterfly Garden and the Henry Michael Powell Memorial and Children’s Garden.

Want to know more?

To learn more about the rehabilitation, visit

The gardens are free and open to the public to enjoy during normal Historic Columbia hours (10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday: 1-5 p.m. Sunday) Private guided tours of the gardens are available for groups of 10 or more with advance registration.

Volunteer in the gardens

Historic Columbia has volunteers who, among other things, help maintain the gardens.

Interested in volunteering? There will be new volunteer training at 10 a.m. Monday at the Robert Mills Carriage House, 1616 Blanding St.

Training kicks off with an orientation session introducing Historic Columbia’s sites, programs and events. Additional training will be provided as new volunteers choose their roles within the organization. Historic Columbia is looking for volunteers willing to donate six or more hours a month.

▪ To register, visit, email or call (803) 252-1770 x 24.

▪ If you cannot come to the orientation, you can still become a volunteer by emailing or calling (803) 252-1770 x 24.