The building in South Carolina that houses the most extensive collection of Southern history treasures is perhaps one of the state’s greatest treasures in and of itself – one that is celebrating its 175th anniversary, and one that is in need of some help.
When it opened on the South Carolina College campus in 1840, the South Caroliniana Library at 910 Sumter St. – on what is today the USC Horeshoe – was the first free-standing academic library in the country, built just a couple of years ahead of the free-standing libraries at Yale and Harvard.
Tuesday, a year-long celebration of its 175th anniversary will kick off with a 6 p.m. program at Drayton Hall Theatre featuring guest speaker and journalist Cokie Roberts, followed by a reception in the library.
The purpose is two-fold: to celebrate the building that archivists say houses the nation’s largest collection of Southern history and to raise money for its restoration.
The state Legislature already has slated $5 million for the project, but an additional $5 million is needed, according to USC Dean of Libraries Tom McNally.
“We’ve been living on borrowed time,” McNally said in regard to the needed renovations.
Earlier this year, library workers packed up its treasured documents and works and relocated them to three area facilities – one of which is the campus’ library annex, with temperature and humidity controls – and, most importantly, a fire-suppressant system which Caroliniana now lacks.
“I went to the president (Harris Pastides) and I said to him, ‘We need to do something about the library.’ I told him about the lack of a fire-suppressant system and Harris said to me: ‘Tom, we’re going to have to move everything out of the library. If anything ever happened to the South Caroliniana library we would both turn in our letters of resignation,’” McNally said.
Robert Mills designed and built in 1838
In 1838, South Carolina College President Robert W. Barnwell recommended the construction of a dedicated academic library and the college’s board of trustees petitioned the state Legislature for $15,000 to construct the facility.
Federal architect and S.C. native Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument, was enlisted to design the library. His original drawings were elaborate and included a cost to build of $64,000. Mills’ worked to scale back the design and came in at a final cost of $24,000.
In addition to the structure’s iconic four white columns out front, the finished product included a second-floor reading room that is a replica of the room that housed Thomas Jefferson’s personal library in the second Library of Congress.
The library served as the South Carolina College main library for 100 years, until 1940.
“Really, it’s a landmark American building – something that has been underappreciated in the history of this state for many years,” said Henry Fulmer, director of the library. “Many folks who have walked the paths of the USC campus regularly, who have lived all of their lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and even those who are native South Carolinians don’t realize there is a real treasure here in this spot.”
Irreplacable historic treasures
Among the historic treasures housed in the library are the Civil War diaries of Mary Boykin Chesnut, wife of U.S. Senator and Confederate General James Chesnut Jr.
“It is one of the most powerful pieces of history in one of the most significant periods of our nation’s history,” McNally said. “Mary Boykin Chesnut was a brilliant woman and her access to people who were important during the Civil War and her recounting of people’s perspectives of what they were hearing and seeing were so detailed. And she put it all down on paper, and we are fortunate enough to have those original writings here.”
Also housed in the library is a French manuscript item from 1683 that encourages settlement in the New World and an extensive map collection donated by the Henry P. Kendall family including one of the earliest English maps of the Carolinas.
“It’s through the papers, the photographs, the oral histories, the various other materials that we have here that help us interpret the South Carolina experience both of people living here in this state and people from South Carolina who interacted with a larger world – not only in years gone by but to the present time – that history is preserved and truly much of it is irreplaceable,” Fulmer said.
The library also boasts a large collection of African-American and women’s history collections that were used by Roberts in the writing of three of her books on Southern women who helped shaped America.
“I had the joy of visiting the beautiful old building on a day when it just so happened that someone was bringing in some family letters to add to the collection,” Roberts said. “It certainly brought home to me what a living place the library is even as it preserves and protects the past. I have been the beneficiary of that preservation as I have mined the writings, most of them unpublished, of South Carolina’s fabulous women.”
Once the remaining $5 million in funding has been raised and plans have been approved – a process that can take up to a year, according to McNally – renovations of the library are expected to take two years.
That’s a minimum of three more years of Caroliniana’s treasures housed off site.
“We all want to see this happen soon and so this is not a five-year fundraiser,” McNally said. “This is six months of fundraising so I really challenged myself to go after people who have the capacity to make a million dollar commitment.
“It’s great when you have a lot of time to go out and get $10,000 checks – I don’t have that kind of time.”
The renovation plans for South Caroliniana Library involve two phases.
Phase I of the plan is dedicated to properly storing and maintaining the library’s treasures:
▪ The east wing will be gutted and reconfigured to accommodate multiple levels of state-of-the-art compact shelving.
▪ The area will be retrofitted with premier fire suppression, humidity control and heating and cooling systems.
▪ The collections in this wing will be protected by a three-hour fire barrier.
Phase II will upgrade public spaces:
▪ The Reading Room will be restored to its original appearance.
▪ The Kendall Memorial Room will become a public meeting and event space that can accommodate lectures and classes.
▪ The ground floor will have improved exhibition spaces and a glass entry to welcome visitors.
▪ Handicapped accessibility and fire suppression will be improved throughout the historic building.
South Caroliniana Library 175th Anniversary Celebration Calendar of Events
Tuesday, : Celebration program, 6-7 p.m. Drayton Hall Theatre, 1214 College St., featuring journalist and author Cokie Roberts. Reception to follow, South Caroliniana Library, 910 Sumter St.
Nov. 10: Oral History at the Caroliniana: Sharing Stories from the Collections, 5:30-6:30 p.m., South Caroliniana Library, 910 Sumter St. Oral historian Andrea L’Hommedieu showcases S.C. stories featuring Carlos Gibbons; 103-year-old Rosemary Jones; Harvey Teal; and others.
Dec. 8: University Archives at the Caroliniana: Two Centuries of Living and Working on the Historic Horseshoe. 5:30-6:30 p.m., South Caroliniana Library, 910 Sumter St. Authors Elizabeth Cassidy West and Katharine Thompson Allen present highlights from their new book, “On the Horseshoe: A Guide to the Historic Campus of the University of South Carolina,” which provides a close look at the Horseshoe’s structures as well as the men and women who lived, worked, and studied in them.
Jan. 26: Visual Materials at the Caroliniana: Documenting SC Design and Philosophy, 5:30-6:30 p.m., South Caroliniana Library, 910 Sumter St. Archivist Beth Bilderback discusses how the architecture of Lafaye Lafaye & Associates, Lyles Bissett Carlilse & Wolff, G. Thomas Harmon, Robert E. Marvin and others guide our understanding and preservation of South Carolina’s built environment.
Feb. 16: African-American Collections at the Caroliniana: Homegoings, Funeral Homes and Celebrations of Community Life, 5:30-6:30 p.m., South Caroliniana Library, 910 Sumter St. Curators Nathan Saunders and Mike Berry explore the rich African-American culture in South Carolina through the lens of Manigault-Hurley Funeral Home; African-American funeral home programs from various manuscript collections; and African-American newspapers such as The Lighthouse and Informer and Palmetto Leader.
March 19: The University South Caroliniana Society annual luncheon, 11 a.m.-noon. Reception, South Caroliniana Library, 910 Sumter St., 12:30-3 p.m. Luncheon, Capital City Club, 1201 Main Street No. 2500. Speaker Orville Vernon Burton, director of CyberInstitute and professor of history, Clemson University. Open to the public. Luncheon tickets required.
April 7: Creating the Caroliniana, 5:30-6:30 p.m., Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, Program Room. Architectural historian John M. Bryan shares recently discovered information about the design and construction of the new (1840) South Carolina College library, Robert Mills’ proposals, and how he adapted designs to meet the budget.
For more information on the above programs, contact the South Caroliniana Library at 803.777.3131.
If you go
Journalist and author Cokie Roberts will be the guest speaker Oct. 6 to open the 175th anniversary celebration for the South Caroliniana Library.
Roberts, who has used South Caroliniana collections for her books on women who helped shape America, will speak at the 6 p.m. program at Drayton Hall Theatre, 1214 College St. A reception and behind-the-scenes tour will follow at the South Caroliniana Library.
The event is free and open to the public.