What does historic Babcock Building fire mean for progress of BullStreet development?

Fire investigation begins at Babcock building

Fire damaged the historic Babcock building on Bull Street in Columbia on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.
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Fire damaged the historic Babcock building on Bull Street in Columbia on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

After one of Columbia’s most iconic historic buildings caught fire Thursday night, questions arise about whether the damage could affect laborious plans for apartments to be built in the Babcock Building at BullStreet.

A Virginia-based developer, Clachan Properties, has been working for more than two years on a plan to transform the century-old Babcock Building into 209 upscale apartments and amenities. The development would be a centerpiece of the long-awaited BullStreet development at the former state mental hospital campus in downtown Columbia.

Only weeks ago, the developer secured a key approval to move forward with an “economically viable rehabilitation project,” which would rely heavily on historic and abandoned building tax credits, Clachan president Hugh Shytle told The State on Friday.

“We really felt like we were at third base, rounding the corner, lining up the financing, having people going over our drawings and the environmental study,” Shytle said. “We were really advancing, and now we’ve got to figure out the impact of a fire.”

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The historic Babcock building on Bull Street was damaged by fire on Thursday. Gavin McIntyre The State

A blaze began just before 6 p.m. Thursday, with flames soon coming through the iconic red-domed roof of the building. The fire burned for about five hours before being extinguished, according to the Columbia fire department.

As far as is known, the building’s prominent red dome, or cupola, was not damaged.

As of Friday morning, the cause of the fire and extent of the damage had not yet been determined.

News of the fire overnight caused pangs and fear and worry among the developer and city leaders, who have invested tens of millions of dollars in the 181-acre BullStreet development and have worked tediously to preserve a number of historic buildings, including Babcock, on the former asylum campus.

“The Babcock Building is a treasure, not just for the people of Columbia, but people across the state of South Carolina,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Friday morning. “It stands out, easily, as one of the most iconic and striking structures of South Carolina. Yes, it is the centerpiece of the campus. So a lot of us were gravely concerned as to how things might work out.”

The Babcock Building was constructed between 1857 and 1885. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in October 1981, though it was in use as a state hospital for the mentally ill well into the 1990s.

The building originally housed the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum, one of the mental hospitals built across the country in support for better care for the mentally ill, according to the National Register.

“Buildings tell stories, and this building tells a story about the history of, on the one hand, Columbia, and on the other hand, the history of how society thinks about the mentally ill and how it treats the mentally ill,” said Shytle, whose company specializes in redeveloping historic properties across the Southeast. “We need to find ways to renovate these buildings and keep the history front and center.”

Thursday’s fire was contained to the south portion of the building, the fire department said. According to early observations, there appeared to be only minimal damage to the exterior of the building.

Initial impressions of the damage are that the building should still be able to be developed into apartments, Shytle said.

The next question, he said, “is how does it change the renovation cost? And that’s what’s going to take some time to figure out.”

“If there’s any possible way to get this done, we’re going to get it done. But it’s going to take a while to figure that out,” Shytle said.

Fire damaged the historic Babcock building on Bull Street in Columbia on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

Sarah Ellis has reported on Columbia and Richland County since 2014. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism. She’s probably skipping happy hour to go to a County Council meeting.