Will former State Hospital morgue find new life as Columbia restaurant?

One of the oddest marriages of past and present at BullStreet – the years-long project to redevelop the former S.C. State Hospital in Columbia – is the transformation of the Ensor Building.

The 78-year-old former morgue and research laboratory has been integrated with the entrance to the 1-year-old Spirit Communications Park and the adjacent First Base Building, a modern four-story office building also completed one year ago.

The historic Ensor Building at the entrance to Spirit Communications Park.

Master developer Hughes Development Corp. of Greenville is renovating Ensor into offices on the second floor and restaurant space on the first floor. Hughes project manager Chandler Thompson said the company has been approached by several interested parties, and is working closely with one of them.

As to those who might wonder about a former morgue becoming a restaurant, she said, “It hasn’t been a morgue for a long time. This is a total renovation. It will be totally cleaned out and DHEC approved.

“It’s a great size and we’ll install garage doors opening up to the patio,” she added. Preserving and reusing Ensor “is a great way to ensure authenticity in the middle of the project.”

The building and the name Ensor has historical significance stretching back to the 19th Century.

In the mid-20th century, the small, two-story neoclassical brick Ensor building housed research labs, a morgue and the hospital’s parasitology department, which studied parasites.

The first floor contained a reception room, microscopic lab, pathology lab, animal holding room, animal operating room, autopsy room and a five-body capacity morgue. The second floor included six offices, a stenographic recording room, and a larger multipurpose space.

Today, the approximately 7,600-square-foot building is a shell. The only remnants of the morgue and laboratory are the roller racks and trays that used to bear bodies in the morgue’s cooler.

“There was real interest in keeping those,” said David Buchanan, owner of Buchanan Construction, which is doing the renovation. “People are trying to figure out how to use them in a suitable way.”

National significance

From 2012 to 2014, a group of University of South Carolina students from the varied backgrounds of history, art, architecture and media, led by art professor Lydia Brandt, studied the historic buildings on the State Hospital’s 181-acre campus.

As part of the project, art history majors Kristin Steele and Lara Hammond found a deep and rich history at the Ensor Building.

“Even though it’s tiny, it has such huge significance not just for the campus and state, but nationally, for the work done there,” said Steele, of Alcolu, a small community off I-95 near Manning.

The hospital would periodically hold symposiums to share discoveries and best practices that drew doctors and scientists from around the world, Steele said, with the parasitology studies being particularly in demand.

The Ensor building began with the approval of the General Assembly in 1938 to fund a research laboratory for the hospital.

Storied Columbia architects Lafaye and Lafaye designed the building to be multifunctional and progressive in addition to being a laboratory. The architects also designed the Wade Hampton State Office Building on the State House grounds and the World War Memorial building at the corner of Pendleton and Sumter Streets, now part of USC’s campus.

Construction of Ensor started in 1938 and the building was finished in April 1939.

Research began in 1939; however, the building remained unnamed until three years later, when Grace Ensor Brown asked that it be named in memory of her father and mother, Joshua Fulton Ensor and Henrietta Kemp Ensor. Because Brown was donating her entire estate to the State Hospital upon her passing, her request was granted.

Joshua Ensor / Photo provided by the S.C. Department of History and Archives

In 1945, three years after Brown’s passing, the General Assembly matched the funds from her estate and the Ensor Research Foundation was established.

‘The morgue from day one’

In 1971, the Ensor Research Foundation was relocated to the neighboring Williams building, and parts of the Ensor building were used for other purposes, although it continued to be a morgue until the late 1990s.

It was used to keep bodies until they were claimed. Unclaimed bodies were sent to the Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston — now MUSC — or buried at state expense, said Mike Mefford, who was a building maintenance supervisor until 2013.

“It was pretty much the morgue from day one,” he said.

Today, the first floor space is being gutted and the second floor refurbished by architects Studio 2LR and Buchanan Construction

About 3,800 square feet on the second floor will be available for office space. The first floor will offer about 3,800 square feet of restaurant space with a large outdoor patio adjacent to the stadium’s entrance plaza.

While it may seem unusual to some to target a former morgue as a restaurant, the gutted interior and broad patio adjacent to the stadium’s entrance plaza make it a prime location for pre-game gatherings and people watching, Thompson said.

She added that in Denver, the Linger Family Mortuary was converted into a successful restaurant. It’s called the Linger Restaurant and bills itself as “Denver’s finest Eatuary”. One of the featured drinks is the “Corpse Reviver.”

When asked if any tenant might also play on the building’s interesting past, Thompson said, “We haven’t talked about it.”

About the Ensor building

▪ Opened in 1939

▪ Closed in 1971

▪ Home of the Ensor Research Foundation

▪ Housed a five-body morgue, labs, autopsy room, animal operating room and offices

▪ Being renovated for office and restaurant space